Reviewed by Jonathan Kirshner
Produced by Charles Gillibert; written and directed by Olivier Assayas; cinematography by Yorick Le Saux; edited by Simon Jacquet; production design by François-Renaud Labarthe; starring Guillaume Canet, Juliette Binoche, Vincent Macaigne, Nora Hamzawi, Christa Théret, and Pascal Greggory. Color, 107 min., French dialogue with English subtitles. An IFC Films release.
On the heels of back-to-back intense personal dramas—the masterpiece Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and the supernatural suspense thriller Personal Shopper (2016)—writer/ director Olivier Assayas returns with the lighter, cunning, leavened-with-humor Non-Fiction. An engaging change of pace for the French auteur, the film, pitched to American audiences as a “comedy of sex, lies and literature,” is certainly very funny, but is better described as an entertaining rumination on perennial questions about how to balance tradition and progress, as well as the nature of art, commerce, and compromise in a new digitized, hypermedia environment.
Non-Fiction explores these concerns via an enmeshed tangle of relationships centered on two couples: Alain (Guillaume Canet), the director of a prestigious Parisian publishing house and his wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche), a successful actor; and their friends Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), a scruffy, acquired-taste, ink-and-paper novelist on the verge of being dropped from Alain’s list, and Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), a no-nonsense political consultant. Thrown into this mix is Laure (Christa Théret), hired by Alain with the ominous title of “Head of Digital Transition” and accurately summarized by Selena as “brilliant business school grad, sexual predator style,” whose remit is to guide the venerable old firm into the uncharted waters of the digital age. Take these ingredients and stir, and the result is Doubles vies (Double Lives)—the French title of the movie and a better fit for a film in which four of the five principal players are indeed living lives characterized by various forms of intimate duplicity.
Non-Fiction is attractively shot across stunning locations and over numerous dinner parties and sumptuous meals—one of this director’s strengths, dating back to Irma Vep (1996) and Late August, Early September (1999)—not since Claude Chabrol has going to the movies been so mouthwatering. The assured visual style here is less ambitious than usual for Assayas (some of his films flirt with the dizzying); the less noticeably present camera was surely designed to stay out of the way and let the dialogue do the talking. Which it does, cascading like a waterfall, as these friends talk and debate and talk still more about issues that will be very familiar to readers of this magazine—about print versus digital media, the role of art and criticism in society, and the very mixed blessings of a more “democratic” information culture.
This deep dive into dialogue will be too much for some tastes, though fans of Éric Rohmer and Woody Allen will find themselves at home, immersed in these thoughtful exchanges—and it helps enormously that the performances are uniformly outstanding, with Binoche in particular setting the tone throughout for communicating much with minimalist gestures. (There are easily a dozen arguments in this film, but not one raised voice.) Canet’s performance is even more restrained, and it is not hard to see him representing Assayas in the film—an affinity further suggested by the fact that Canet is not only a sought-after actor but a talented director as well (Tell No One and Little White Lies are his most accomplished films). Alain, like Assayas in several of his films, strikes an ambivalent middle ground between cherishing the treasures of the past and embracing the disruptive, forward-hurtling opportunities of the vital present. In his own social circle, Alain pushes back against the protestations of establishment traditionalism; but among the young enthusiasts starry-eyed about the digital future, he strikes a more cautionary pose. Alain is also something of a director within the movie, as an orchestrator of much of the action, an observer, and, of course, an inveterate talker.
There is nothing wrong with talking pictures. But Non-Fiction, like the best of them, is most compelling in moments of subtle understatement, as seen in two conversations about infidelity. “I believe in the implicit,” one character declares, preferring to avoid dwelling on the subject, “I know, you know, no need to get bogged down.” The second conversation, around a kitchen table, nominally about the portrayal of a character in a novel, is so implicit that it’s quite possible to believe they weren’t actually talking about adultery. A weakness of the movie, however, is that most of the conversations about its nominal topics of interest are literal, writerly, and even at times pedantic (especially in the first half of the movie, which gains strength as the characters’ dramatic arcs increasingly take command of the narrative). Many of the points raised are certainly well-taken—on the pathologies of Internet marketing algorithms that provide comforting reaffirmations of pre-existing beliefs, the overreach of privacy-invading Google, or Selena’s laments about a script—but these expositions can have a lecture-hall feel (“I hate revenge, especially when it legitimizes violence”).
Other weedy elements of Non-Fiction include the plausibility of Léonard’s wide ranging and enviable romantic relationships; this is a character whose physical appearance falls somewhere on the Wallace Shawn–Paul Giamatti scale, and Macaigne admirably withholds any performative tricks that might suggest a twinkling charisma hiding behind the facade of a self-centered, vaguely misanthropic personality. That accomplished and attractive women find him irresistible requires a considerable suspension of disbelief. And the film’s conclusion, even on a second viewing, is a little pat, abrupt, and closes with a hint of a “let’s-not-take-any-of-this-too-seriously” attitude (the credits roll to “Here Come the Martian Martians”) that cuts against the grain of the rest of the picture, which is not a farce, but a serious film that happens to be very funny…
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 3