New York 2018

Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction

Guillaume Canet in Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction (2018)

Two middle-aged Parisian couples talk and talk and talk about the threat digitalization poses to the appreciation of good old-fashioned analogue art and literature in Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction. To anyone wondering where the French writer and director himself might stand on the issue, consider that the film has been predominantly shot on film, specifically, a grainy Super 16 mm stock. Some critics have voiced a few quibbles, but overall, Non-Fiction has been warmly received since its premiere in Venice. “For roughly an hour and forty-five minutes,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times, “this delightfully voluble new comedy sustains a tireless volley of verbiage, planting itself in a grand tradition of gabby French cinema that Assayas has visited before (most gloriously in 2009’s Summer Hours), and that stretches back at least as far as Eric Rohmer.”

Alain (Guillaume Canet) runs a small but influential publishing house, and he’s debating—with his wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche), with novelist Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) and his wife, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), and with himself—about his decision to go digital. The move is all but inevitable, but it’s also one that publishers and art institutions have been facing up to since before the turn of the millennium. “Non-Fiction is a portrait of the present at once attuned to the zeitgeist and dated, a contradiction that often inhibits the film’s narrative momentum and ends up restricting the scope and impact of its critique,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia—coeditor, by the way, of the proudly analogue cinema journal, Fireflies—for Sight & Sound.

At Reverse Shot, Demitra Kampakis notes that in 2016’s Personal Shopper, “Assayas focused his gaze on the permanence of digital communication as it exists in the cyber realm, where one can retrieve months-old text conversations by merely scrolling—and how said communication affects our relationship to the dead and the past. With Non-Fiction, Assayas shifts his gaze to the cultural impermanence brought on by technology,” which raises a fresh set of questions: “What effect does this transience of information and communication have on the collective cultural identity? How can the zeitgeist be defined when it’s so rapidly shifting?”

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