New York 2018

Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction

The Daily — Oct 3, 2018
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?”

Meantime, Alain is also having an affair with young Laure (Christa Théret), who’s overseeing the transition to digital, and he’s aware of but keeps quiet about Selena’s affair with Léonard. “Assayas stacks everyone’s heated intellectual rhetoric about a dumbed-down modern age against the petulant selfishness of their affairs, amusingly poking holes in their inflated self-regard,” notes Jake Cole at Slant. But not quite amusingly enough for Cole, who finds that “the repetitious arguments about art too often exist at a remove from the film’s more amusing depiction of its characters’ amorous woes.”

Other critics find that the performances more than make up for whatever problems they may have with the substance or repetitiveness of the debates. “Binoche is on fine form, as sparkily comedic as she was in Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In,” writes Screen’s Lee Marshall, adding that Hamzawi “risks stealing the show through sheer force of character.” At the Film Stage, Leonardo Goi agrees that Non-Fiction is “a comedy whose four protagonists add to their own philosophical ramblings a compelling mix of warmth, candor, and fallibility.”

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