Juliette Binoche Plays an Actress for Olivier Assayas for the Third Time in a row. True Story.
DIRECTED BY OLIVIER ASSAYAS/FRENCH/2019 (U.S. Theatrical Release)
“The role of critic as trendsetter has weakened.“
Speaking as a critic who’s worked for over a decade to establish a voice of some reasonable authority, I can only respond with, “Well, crap”. Or in this case, perhaps ”Bien, merde”.
That said, that singular quote from French auteur Olivier Assayas’s latest picture, Non-Fiction, is not exactly news. Much is said throughout the course of this particularly talky film; most of it, thankfully, quite engaging. Casual topics range from relationship fidelity to politics. But mostly, they center on the book publishing world, naturally spilling into how technology is changing people.
“Soon we’ll put more trust in algorithms based on consumer habits than in smug critics.”
Oh, non... Yet, no smugness is necessary in my recommendation of this film. (Whether it turns out to be present or not will have to be left to the reading eye of the beholder). In a filmgoing world in which the brandishing of “dialogue-driven” is often automatically received as “boring”, Non-Fiction might be a tough sell. But even as it’s continuous blunt, French, intellectual chattiness often evokes Godard/Gorin and certain Louis Malle, Assayas (though every bit the informed film buff) is less interested in his own referential cleverness than he is with the honest exchange of ideas, and how that coincides with the deceptively volatile relationships of his small group of characters. The film’s native title, Doubles vies (Double Lives) is closer to the mark in terms of what the film is truly about.
That said, the filmmaker clearly couldn’t resist some acute riffing on his continuum with the biggest name in this ensemble. Non-Fiction could be considered the third of what is currently Assayas’s “Juliette Binoche actress trilogy”, a loose-at-best string of films prominently utilizing Binoche’s status, fame, and talent to sometimes meta levels. Though her aging starlet character of 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria may be a more consistently apropos take on the actress herself, Non-Fiction eventually can’t resist engaging in a minor bit of cuteness that is, just for a moment, worthy of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve. In 2016’s Personal Shopper, Binoche plays an oppressive diva and re-teams with her Sils Maria costar, Kristen Stewart. That film takes the supernatural allusions of Sils Maria to the forefront, as Stewart’s character struggles to connect with the spirit of her dead brother.
Non-Fiction, then, by comparison, lives up to its title insomuch as its own subject matter is concerned. Conceptually, this film is nothing more complicated than the perpetually complicated love lives of its group of affluent Parisians. Which, as it turns out, is quite enough.
Lackadaisical but with tension, Guillaume Canet plays Alain, a publishing executive with the power to decide which books go to print. His wife is Binoche’s character, Selena. Selena, though known in certain circles for her previous high falutin’ work, is now popular with the masses thanks to her starring role on TV cop show. She’s not content with the work, but she has become committed to it.
Soothing her discontent, presumably, is her ongoing affair with Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), a frustrated navel-gazing genius author who’s declined in popularity to the point that his longtime publisher Alain turns down his latest manuscript. Léonard’s significant other, the intuitive Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), is working in politics for a socialist candidate. She’s as pragmatically closed off as Léonard is an open book. How these two stay together is anyone’s guess, but we never don’t believe it.
Alain, meanwhile, has been enjoying the intimate clandestine company of Laure (Christa Théret), a bisexual young intellectual who says both quotes that appear above in this review. What a tangled web of book binding glue and device-charging power cords…
Part of the fascination with Assayas is seeing what he’ll do next. With Non-Fiction, we have gotten a smaller work, yes, but also one slyly in step with what’s come before it. If a moderately humble critic can have any say in the matter, I’d encourage you to see this, and get in on its many conversations before the fickle public turns the page on this made up slice of Non-Fiction.