2019 | rated R | starring Guilaume Canet, Juliette Binoche | written & directed by Olivier Assayas | 1 hr 48 mins | In French with English subtitles |
If you asked me to sum up the story of Olivier Assayas’ last two modern indie classics Clouds of Sils Maria or Personal Shopper, I probably couldn’t. The same can be said for his next, Non-Fiction. Assayas ability to craft a compelling narrative without a high concept plot, but driven by a wealth of complex characters, rich details and smart dialog is unmatched right now. I’ve become a big fan. Non-Fiction feels like the work of someone who got dangerously close to mainstream acceptance with his last movie, Personal Shopper (a movie that literally has ghosts in it), and is reeling it all way back. It is stripped down to the basics and homaging his inspirations.
Non-Fiction feels very Jean Luc-Goddard, particularly Contempt and Masculine Femenine. In these movies artists sit in French cafes and dinner parties, drink wine and muse about art. Art or society is always being threatened by money, capitalism, Coca-Cola or general apathy of the new generation. Non-Fiction centers around the publishing world being threatened by the internet age. Assayas navigates the perspectives on this topic through a tangled web of relationships: Alain (Guilaume Canet) the publisher who prefers the printed word and plans to be the last man standing against the digital world; an equally old school author Leonard (Vincent Macaigne, The Innocents) whose best works seem behind him with the fatal flaw of being unable to write without putting himself and those around him in the story; Alain’s wife Selene (Juliette Binoche), an actor on a police procedural she can no longer stand; as well as Alain’s digital media assistant Laure (Christa Theret) and Leonard’s wife (Nora Hamzawi), who works for a politician named David, political in an increasingly apathetic and cynical political world.
All this winds together beautifully with each card propping against the next and the next and the next, with turns that push and pull both erotic and intellectual. Conversational films can so, so, easily be screenwriting masturbation. In Assayas’ hands what they say is oh, so, compelling. People are writing more then ever, but it’s on Twitter, and is anyone reading it? One of Alain’s artists has a blog that attracts more readers than his book – and some of those buy his books. Are people really reading less and writing more? Does reading inspire critical thought and evaluation that has gone away in a complacent society. Assayas defines the post-truth media environment as one with self-selected echo chambers better than any news media has. The publishing world is chasing trends, and those trends change even in the course of this movie (books give way to blogs the way, Kindles give way to audio-books). Alain and Laure are both right and wrong. For every argument about why the digital revolution is inevitable, someone has a counter-argument for it’s side effects, for every complaint that the internet is bringing about the end of intelligence, Assayas has a well constructed comparison to show what is happening has always happened – in one form or another.
All of this feed my mind. It was enthralling to watch a movie and mull these ideas over. Ideas about the internet’s ever-growing presence in our lives that we are so often told to celebrate without question. Everyone in Non-Fiction likes to debate and when questioned they throw their hands up and say they don’t have an opinion themselves. Internet non-committal cynicism so accurately replicated in the real world. The seaming end of the print publishing world coincides with the threats to everybody’s relationships.
I, kind of, wish that Assayas had come up with a narrative parallel to show his ideas instead of tell them, like the more cinematic Sils Maria, but when his patter is this good it’s hard to argue. On a dialog-level it’s one of the better scripts of the year. I was totally compelled by it. Maybe because Assayas has two great movies at his back, maybe because I’m interested in the topic and maybe because I’m just at that age where I’ve seen enough movies to relish this kind of lingering character-rich film. You think you won’t. You think it’s just “boring” when you’re young, but if you love movies enough, eventually you get to that point where artists sitting around French apartments, drinking wine and talking about art will become compelling to you too. Non-Fiction does what it does very well. Another feather in Assayas’ cap.