A former editor and prominent contributor to Cahiers du Cinema, the celebrated journal that sparked the French New Wave and the current surge of young auteurs, Olivier Assayas pulled off the decade's most dazzling feat of film criticism with 1996's Irma Vep, which picked apart and reinvented the country's chaotic film scene. As if braced for an anticlimax, his eagerly awaited follow-up, Late August, Early September, settles into the modest, familiar design of a character-driven French roundelay. Early on, there's a self-conscious scene in which book editor Mathieu Amalric defends unpopular author François Cluzet from charges that his novels have no story to draw the reader into his vision. Amalric's response, "Can stories describe the world?," neatly encapsulates Assayas' loose, deceptively casual meditation on mortality, which gathers minor details en route to an unexpectedly tender conclusion. Late August, Early September concerns a group of thirtysomething Parisians who experience early midlife crises when it's discovered that their mutual friend Cluzet is dying of an unspecified illness. Amalric, who led another fine ensemble through My Sex Life…Or How I Got Into An Argument, plays his most devoted friend, a tortured intellectual unsatisfied with the course of his life. News of Cluzet's condition causes him to reevaluate his commitment to his job and two very different women: Jeanne Balibar, a melancholic old girlfriend he's in the process of leaving, and his younger, more impetuous lover, A Single Girl's Virginie Ledoyen. With steady assurance and empathy, Assayas examines a crucial period in his characters' lives when the reality of death is suddenly thrust upon them and they can no longer justify their youthful aimlessness. Late August, Early September is a resolutely minor work, a quiet departure from the brash showiness of Irma Vep, but it's crafted with the sure hand of a major director.