Film: `I'm part of a cinema of resistance'

Jeanne Balibar is riding a new New Wave.

In the UK, French art films have always had something of an image problem. Even the French call them - derogatorily - nombriliste, which means navel-gazing. But in Olivier Assayas' forthcoming Late August, Early September, the on-screen partnership of two young performers - Jeanne Balibar and Mathieu Amalric - looks strong enough to widen the appeal of a genre that traditionally appeals to minority tastes.

In the film, Balibar and Amalric play a couple negotiating the breakdown of their relationship and the death of a mutual friend. In life, they are married and, when I met them in Paris, were about to take off on holiday with their two children.

The couple first acted together in Arnaud Desplechin's 1997 film My Sex Life (How I Got into an Argument). Immediately they became the two principal faces of what is referred to, somewhat amorphously, as "the Young French cinema". Amalric plays Paul, a boyishly likeable if infuriating presence, a Jean-Pierre Leaud for the 1990s. And Balibar was electrifying as Valerie - a she-devil philosophy student who enchants Paul, then utterly terrifies him with her unpredictable behaviour.

Though Balibar was plausible as a contemporary character, there was a quality about her as an actress that could belong to the French cinema of the 1930s and 1940s. "I'm constantly being told that," she laughs. "It's getting a bit tiresome, having this air of anachronism." She can change from interrogatory silences - holding her partner with luminous, piercing eyes - to skittish action, emphasised by her expressive angularity. But it was mostly in the quality of her voice, which is able to skip across several pitches in the space of a line and to suggest a cajoling, curious intelligence that was never very far from the comic.

This unpredictability is well to the fore in Late August, Early September. The film opens on a scene in which she and Gabriel, her ex-partner - played by Amalric - are showing prospective buyers around their flat. Gabriel keeps up the salesman patter, leading the other couple from room to room. Balibar does little other than hug the wall, her face switching and twitching. The dismantling of what was once their shared domestic space hurts her. And she shows this without saying a word. "Jeanne is a changeling in front of the camera," Amalric says. "You never know quite how far she'll go."

Late August, Early September is an anatomisation of emotions, reminiscent of older directors such as Claude Sautet and Andre Techine; and that's part of its interest. When films like Sautet's A Heart in Winter or Nelly and Mr Arnaud reached our shores, they did so partly on the star-power of Emmanuelle Beart. But they were also attempts to find a younger audience for this sort of cinema. Late August continues this tradition, but with a stylistic lightness that will be familiar to those who saw Assayas's Irma Vep - his sixth feature but the first to get a release in the UK. It was a cult success, a kind of loose-limbed remake of Truffaut's Day for Night with the Hong Kong action-movie starlet Maggie Cheung essaying the part of the French silent cinema icon Musidora.

Carrying over the hand-held camerawork of Denis Lenoir, the cinematographer with whom Assayas has shot all of his features, the style of Irma has been brought to bear on Late August, a story whose concerns - friendship and work, love and death - are treated in a fragmented narrative. Gabriel's friend, a writer named Adrien Wilier (Francois Cluzet) dies and the repercussions are felt by his circle of friends. We don't see the physical death. Instead, Assayas chooses to show the emotional impacts and consequences that Adrien's social death has on a terrific ensemble cast, which includes Francois Cluzet and Virginie Ledoyen, who's soon to appear opposite Leonardo Di Caprio in The Beach.

Balibar's particular place in French cinema is as the embodiment of cultured, middle-class, and frequently Parisian femininity. There's little doubt that she could play the glamorous costume-drama queen or even take the route to being an international token of class, a la Juliette Binoche or Irene Jacob. But for the time being her chosen place is in the low- budget end of auteur cinema - which brings us back to the accusation of "navel- gazing". Balibar has no time for it. "You know, this sort of cinema is often seen as being about sons from good families with existential problems and, while I don't want to come across as paranoid about these things, that attitude is part of the war between a very commercial, Americanised cinema and an auteur cinema in France. The films of directors such as Assayas and Desplechin are part of a cinema of resistance, one that resists the heavy artillery of big-budget movies by talking about things that are delicate, subtle and literary. It's a cinema that's more on the side of art than spectacle and that has more to do with details than special effects."

Balibar's own background is comfortably part of this milieu. The daughter of the French philosopher Etienne Balibar, she was bound for an academic career from an early age and lived in England for two years while doing research in 17th-century English history at Oxford and Cambridge. But when she returned to France, a spell at the Conservatoire in Paris put a stop to her studies.

Her partnership with Amalric has seen them cast together recently in another low-budget feature, Three Rivers, directed by Jean-Claude Biette.

Amalric himself, whom Assayas describes as "the essence of contemporaneity", has been around film-making since the age of 17, when he lived in Moscow with his journalist parents and was cast in a film by the Georgian director Otar Ioselliani. "I wanted to do what the director was doing," he recalls. He has since made several shorts and is preparing his first feature, in which he will direct Balibar. It's an adaptation of an Italian novel called Wimbledon Stadium. They're due to shoot in south London next autumn. But a lot could happen in these careers between now and then: "the faces of the new French cinema" have scarcely begun.

`Late August, Early September' (15) opens on 20 August

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all