Livre la France!
by Andres Solar
This latest from French auteur Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper, 2016) sees him decreasing visual scope in favor of up-close characterizations. The result is unapologetically light fare in the manner of second-tier Woody Allen, including a middle-aged, neurotic, “floundering” author named Léonard who’s also fond of philandering.
Rather than thrusting a typical love triangle on viewers, Non-Fiction eases them into the corners of a love pentagon. Two smart men: the author and his longtime editor. Three smarter women: the author’s live-in girlfriend, the editor’s wife, and the editor’s lover. A good-looking bunch, they drink espressos and wine and hold forth about literature as art and commodity.
Assayas is among the most intriguing contemporary directors in the world, not so much for what he has done, but for what he hasn’t. He’s a disciplined filmmaker, almost to a fault. Aside from his clear concern with modernity, he reins in temptations to stylize, favoring formality.
His camera moves thoughtfully, à la latter-day Robert Altman in their inquisitive, strolling pans and medium-angle-to-close-up transitions within a single shot. An example of this would be an angle showing a man (from waist up in semi-profile) standing at the front desk of a hotel. He puts his wallet on the counter, and then the same camera dollies in on the wallet. (No cut.) In Non-Fiction, we also see the results of cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s (Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013) Altman-like tendencies. He delicately pushes the camera in or dollies out to begin many sequences, which effectively guides the viewer towards (or away from) the character who is more (or less) significant or compelling at that time.
The characters here are fully formed and inspired, and the performances of the ensemble cast are the best thing about this movie. No actor in it is less than excellent. Guillaume Canet as editor Alain Danielson and Vincent Macaigne as Allen-esque author Léonard Spiegel hit all the right notes individually and all the correct, complex chords together. As Selena, wife to Alain and mother to their children, the ever-wonderful Juliette Binoche is wonderful yet again. Anyone else in that role would have diminished the film by a third. The great standout here, though, is Nora Hamzawi as Valérie. She sportingly inhabits her witty character—a sharp political operative and live-in girlfriend to Léonard—with charm, intuition, and strength.
So where does it go wrong? The screenplay includes way too many references—especially in extended segments of dialogue—to “the digital age,” the demise and/or resurgence of print publishing, e-books vs. print vs. audiobooks, and so on and so on. Valérie uses two smartphones and a tablet computer, so there are at least two scenes where she’s fumbling with cords or feels stressed out that a battery has gone dead, etc., etc. These are the low-hanging fruit Assayas would do best to avoid.
What he risks most in his last three films (including The Clouds of Sils Maria  and Personal Shopper) is gaining a reputation for stories in which the conflicts reflect what some crudely call “White-people problems.” Of course, not only would he have plenty of company in that pigeonhole, but the argument would be mostly unfounded. At a deeper level, most moviegoers will find much to relate to in his oeuvre.
Returning to the picture’s concern with the silliness of the information age, it’s a well-worn topic in 2019, and presented here plainly, as purely self-evident, it fails to strike any real comedic notes. The oft-repeated attempts almost frame the characters as irrevocably petty. It feels at times that the whole movie will stall out in a whirlwind of aimless philosophizing. Fortunately, much of this is mitigated in the second act. From that point on, the comedy comes with much less effort, and the movie in general find its footing.
A nominee for best-feature gold in competition at Venice and Miami, Non-Fiction leaves you feeling you’ve enjoyed a good film, but not a great one. It’s a crisp twist on the Assayas aesthetic and an intelligent dramedy that leans towards wry humor. The writer-director’s works, Non-Fiction included, gently transport while superficially sizzling with vitality. They possess the treasured quality that Ingmar Bergman liked to call “alive.” But as to the circle that will contain the year’s best, expect this one to sit at the periphery.
The Film Critique Rating: ★★★☆☆