For a film largely concerned with the marching evolution of technology, Non-Fiction remains grounded in a very traditional framework of simple mood and antiquated tempo. Part of this is due to the guiding hand of filmmaker Olivier Assayas (who also wrote the script) and his supreme sense of crackling intelligence with the genre of film known as the French talky, something he’s been masterfully producing since the mid 1980s.
It also helps that his latest film stars the likes of Juliette Binoche, Guillame Canet (a filmmaker himself) and Vincent Macaigne as a roundelay of upper middle class men and women jumping in and out of bed with each other, contemplating life and their work while carefully orchestrating cigarettes and coffee to pass the time. It’s all very Gallic, to be sure, but also replete with a wonderful sense of humor and tender characterizations that puts most modern adult ‘dramedies’ to shame.
Always one to curate a large ensemble cast whose various dinner parties and family reunions can barely stay focused on one person or event for very long, Assayas eventually focuses Non-Fiction around two married couples, publishing manager Alaine (Canet) and his actress wife Selena (Binoche), and their likewise married friends, author Leonard (Macaigne) and his wife Valerie (Nora Hamzawi).
Still trying to regain his lost bohemian-like popularity, Leonard is further distressed when Alaine refuses to publish his latest novel because his company is leaning more towards electronic devices than actual books. It’s not out of spite, but Leonard and Alaine’s wife Selena have been carrying on an affair for several months.
However, it doesn’t seem to bother Alaine much since he himself is having an affair with one of his co-workers (Laura de Angerville), whose modus operandi for Alaine is the ruthless analyzation of data in a world more concerned with clicks than turns of the page.
As the couples continue to hang out, vacation together and balance themselves against a swaying industry of potential buy-outs and critical blurbs, Non-Fiction becomes less about the boredom that drives each person to cheat or if each one will find out, and more about the sly comedy Assayas builds upon each conversation.
In one scene, the couples discuss how good Juliette Binoche would be to star in Leonard’s new book, made all the more self-referential because Binoche is right there … acting as someone else. Or the way Leonard flirts with Selena through the casual mention of a Star Wars film. Beyond that, finales have always been his strong suit — see Late August, Early September (1996) or especially Cold Water (1994) — and he establishes yet another poignant final scene here, bottling just the perfect amount of reverie.
Behind the somewhat normal set-up of French amatory, Non-Fiction is also a striking examination about a certain time in history when a cultural artifact (the book) is in terrifying flux. Asssayas obviously loves to read. The backgrounds in so many of his films are dotted by cavernous bookcases and his scripts are highly literate. By placing his men and women in a shifting landscape where the old ways are being pushed out by more analytical avenues of publication, Non-Fiction becomes a double entendre. It’s both about an idea and an emotion. And it succeeds magnificently in promoting the best versions of both these things.
In one of cinema’s most magical scenes, Assayas’ film Cold Water follows a group of kids during a very long night of partying at a decaying country estate. Culminating in a thrashing of furniture into a bonfire outside and timed to the tunes of Leonard Cohen and Creedence Clearwater Revival, it’s a primal declaration of youthful exuberance and cinematic staging. Since then, it feels like he’s been remaking that film with these kids stumbling into adulthood, still exuberant and primal but tamed by the pressures of responsibility. It’s not hard to image Non-Fiction being the next chapter. All I can say is my blinding appreciation for Assayas craves for however he wishes to mold this universe in the decades to come.
Non-Fiction opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, May 24 at the Landmark Magnolia.