Friday, May 17, 2019

Movie Review: Non-Fiction

Non-Fiction **** / *****
Directed by: Olivier Assayas.
Written by: Olivier Assayas.
Starring: Guillaume Canet (Alain), Juliette Binoche (Selena), Vincent Macaigne (Léonard), Christa Théret (Laure), Nora Hamzawi (Valérie), Pascal Greggory (Marc-Antoine), Antoine Reinartz (Blaise).
French auteur Olivier Assayas knows full well that Non-Fiction may well be dated by the time most people even see it. Cinema is not always the best way to be timely, because of the time it takes to write, produce and release a film – if you’re trying to make a film on a hot button issue, by the time it hits theaters, the hot button has been pressed, and we’ve moved on. And yet, in the case of Non-Fiction, it doesn’t really matter. Assayas is making a film about a very specific moment in time, having his character’s debate very specific issues. But they could be discussing anything, and his characters are interesting. If he had his various characters take a specific position, and fight for it throughout the film, essentially becoming a mouthpiece for that position, then Non-Fiction would essentially be a didactic message movie. But his characters are fluid – they argue one thing in one scene, but we see how they wrestle with it – changing their minds, or at least being open to. Assayas isn’t really interested in making specific points – but is interested in the way people talk about these issues.
The film takes place in the publishing world, and basically focuses on two couples. Alain (Guillaume Canet) is the head of a publishing company, who is looking at the book market, and wondering where it is going. Will physical books still be a thing people buy? Will it be e-books? Will books be something anyone reads at all in a few years. He is married to Selena (Juliette Binoche) – an actress, on a popular TV show meant to be binged watched on a streaming service – but she’s not playing a cop contrary to what everyone thinks, just someone who works in crisis management – although she is often seen storming apartments with a gun drawn, what’s the difference. One of Alain’s authors is Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) – who is also one the couple’s best friends. He basically writes thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, essentially about his many affairs – including an ongoing one with Selena. Leonard is married to Valerie (Nor Hamzawi), who works for a progressive political candidate, and is often on multiple devices at one time. The other major character is Laure (Christa Theret) – a generation younger than the rest – and the head of Alain’s company digital division. And, of course, Alain and Laure are sleeping together.
You will see better films this year, but you probably won’t see a Frencher film than this. Basically, all these upper-middle class (or just upper-class) people do is sit around and discuss the future of the publishing industry – and what digital technology means for it. When they aren’t doing that, they are discussing their affairs – they discuss their affairs more than they actually carry out those affairs. There is talk about the ethics of what Leonard is doing – is co-opting others stories unethical? Or is it just his own experiences, so it’s okay? Do books matter? Blogs? Twitter? Streaming shows? Etc. Assayas doesn’t bring up cinema in the film, but he easily could have. These are the same issues facing it right now as well.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Assayas is tackling these questions. His last two films – Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper – addressed more obliquely than he does here. In Clouds of Sils Maria, iPads are ever present, the way the people read or watch things. It’s built into the very storytelling of Personal Shopper – with the main character receiving text messages perhaps from beyond the grave. Assayas knows that to make a film about modern life without including it is to fundamentally ignore how we live. Here, though, he is addressing it head-on in conversations and debates. At first, you think he’s going to have the various characters each represent different sides in the debate – but he doesn’t do that. He doesn’t provide any answers to any of the questions he raises, he just lets people talk it out – and wrestle with it.
It would be tempting to dismiss Non-Fiction as minor Assayas – a simple place holder coming after two major works, and hopefully leading to another major work. But while it’s true that the film is not the film that Clouds of Sils Maria or Personal Shopper were, it’s also true that the film is fascinating, funny, well written and well-acted. Yes, a lot of this is navel gazing, but it knows it’s navel gazing. It’s the type of film Woody Allen could have made if he wasn’t so firmly rooted in the past and nostalgia now. True, Non-Fiction will probably seem dated a year from now – hell, you could argue it’s become dated in the time it took him to make it, and then for it to hit the festival circuit and hit theaters – and will be even more dated by the time it hits home viewing options where most people will actually see it. But in a way, in order to address the anxieties of its time and place, it almost has to be instantly dated. That’s the world we live in now.

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