' ' Cinema Romantico

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Gloria Bell

“Gloria Bell” begins on the dance floor, at an over-50s club, and ends there too, with more scenes of the eponymous character (Julianne Moore) dancing throughout, where even if the ostensible goal is to meet men, she’s just there to cut a rug. And in-between all these scenes of getting into the groove are glimpses of Gloria singing in the car, each one demonstrating Moore’s natural performance, not dramatically throwing her head back in that way movie characters singing in cars often do but keeping her eyes firmly on the road and her hands tightly on the wheel, even as she warbles along with the lyrics. And these songs, both on the dance floor and in the car, are not hits of the day, mind you, but songs of her era, often disco, illustrating comfort in her own skin, a sensation furthered in those big glasses – wear what you want. Because even if she’s getting old, and even if the problems of the, ahem, present are occasionally glimpsed on the periphery, like a dinnertime conversation about gun control, or lack thereof, nothing can bring her down. “I hope I go out dancing,” she says in a line that Moore invests not with the naivety of youth but the hard-won wisdom of age.


Based on Sebastián Lelio’s own 2013 Chilean film, which I have not seen and therefore cannot comment on, “Gloria Bell” reminded me just as much of another 2013 American film anyway, Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha”, which, in turn, wore its French New Wave influence obviously, films comprised of jump cuts, collections of vignettes strung together, like “Vivre sa Vie”, or: “My Life to Live”, which might as well be an alternate title for “Gloria Bell.” The episodic nature deliberately resists any kind of traditional arc, all the way up to the end, emphasized by the episodes being given ellipses instead of periods. When Gloria is diagnosed with glaucoma in a curt, matter-of-fact scene, the movie just lets that moment lie there, never bringing it up again, just a glimpse at her future, like peering over the cliff’s edge into the abyss. This is balanced against other lighter moments, like yoga class and some sort of laughter therapy, none of them standing for anything more than feeding into Gloria’s overriding personality, all which Moore takes into performing account, like the scene at the gaming table where her character sidles up to another woman out of both earnest friendliness and palpable desperation to make a friend.

That delicate balance often extends to the sequences themselves too, such as an elongated one in which Gloria has dinner with her two adult children, ex-husband and his new wife along with her new boyfriend Arnold (John Turturro). If this sort of mixing is typically ripe for broad comedy or openings of old wounds, this scene exists agreeably in the middle, each actor accentuating the awkwardness without overdoing resentment, as if everyone here has long ago made arduous peace with this situation and now is just trying to survive the night. Arnold doesn’t survive the night, figuratively speaking, gradually slipping further and further into the background of the frames, and then out slipping out of the apartment undetected.


This foreshadows their semi-tumultuous relationship, one defined by Arnold’s own ex-wife and two kids, none of whom we officially meet but to whom he feels dutybound despite wearily knowing they take advantage. That duality comes through in Turturro’s quiet voice and deliberate gestures, where even as he claims in the presence of Gloria how it’s his life, his body betrays the familial weight pressing down. In another movie, he might have been the main character and she the rock on which he leans as he tries to become a New Man. But Gloria Bell isn’t his rock; she’s his b.s. detector, her verbal parrying of his first Take-Me-Back plea evidence of someone whose self-awareness divulges a lack of desire to be involved with someone who is lying to himself. And that is why this subplot isn’t so much about discovery for her as a a statement of purpose, brought home in its ultimate kiss-off, which I will not reveal but is nevertheless shrewdly set up and hilariously conveyed, its capping shot evoking a different kind of laughter therapy, and emblemizing a movie that is not about Gloria Bell finding herself but celebrating who she is.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Late Night

The screenplay for “Late Night”, in which famed talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) finds herself on the verge of forced retirement after too long coasting on faded glory (and booking Doris Kearns Goodwin in the age of YouTube stars), is frequently as hoary as that synopsis sounds, like something culled from “The Late Shift” days of the 1990s when these TV programs felt more like lighthearted extensions of the evening news. Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, who wrote the script) might get belted with a bag of garbage while inspirationally reciting Yeats before her first day as a new staff writer on Katherine’s show, but “Late Night” is nevertheless as earnest as its character, seriously addressing core issues of the entertainment industry even as it cannot help but express eternal optimism for the late-night format anyway. Indeed, Nisha Ganatra’s film feels more indebted to the small screen than the big screen, evoked in the oddly cramped moment where Molly first steps on the Late Night stage, never going wide to revel in the splendor of the place and how its history overwhelms her. And though Thompson’s lead performance is so electric she livens up even the most basic point-and-shoot frames, she is screaming out for a close-up worthy of her movie star magnetism or a wide shot that lets us get a sense of how her energy can hold an entire cavernous room. Alas.


That Molly, a quality control specialist at a chemical plant with dreams of writing and performing comedy, even gets the job is only because she happens to be interviewing for it with Katherine’s right-hand man (Dennis O’Hare) at the exact instant Katherine, having only recently discovered her show has long been written by a gaggle of white men, calls and harangues him to hire a woman. He follows the order, Molly earning the spot over the younger brother of the head monologue writer, Tom (Reid Scott). If to him this is merely a requisite hire for diversity, and if to her this is a triumph over nepotism, then to the movie it is refreshingly both, and which is where Kaling’s screenplay is best, threading both these ideas through the story rather than leaving them as one-off jokes.

Her character is made to earn her place, which she eventually does, not simply being forthright in her assessment of the show’s staleness but in concocting jokes and bits that play directly to the host’s candor and further the movie’s skewering of racial and societal assumptions, like recasting the old Letterman bit about a man in a bear suit trying to hail a cab as Katherine playing White Savior by hailing cabs for people of color, which Thompson plays less as social justice warrior and more with dry contempt for society at large. The other staff writers, meanwhile, while a Wonder Bread loaf of Harvard Lampoon dolts, are also portrayed as where they are because of a system to which they remain blind or willfully refuse to acknowledge.

Then again, these writers are mostly just one big entity, aside from Charlie (Hugh Dancy), who extends an olive branch to Molly. That he turns out to be a romantic grifter of sorts is obvious, though to Kaling’s credit the script does not linger overmuch – nay, it doesn’t even really linger at all – on her character’s heartbreak. In the typical scene where she shows up at Charlie’s apartment only to discover he’s with another woman, Kaling opts out of melancholy for a sort of “duh, of course he is!” self-amusement. Still, this subplot is evocative of the script’s penchant for the obvious and its sometimes more punchless politics, the character of Charlie mostly existing just to spring a narrative trap down the road, one involving Katherine, and then conspicuously evading the topic of workplace power dynamics.


But if the narrative complications are often only nominally complicated, Thompson’s performance is not, as she plays straight to the notion of her character having to embrace her own complications to alter her comedy to maintain commercial relevancy, fusing Katherine’s artistic enlightenment with practical business concerns. And though the character changes, she doesn’t really soften, Thompson recognizing that feisty exterior makes Katherine her, amending her approach without necessarily changing who she is. Plus, Thompson is really, really funny! She wrings 110% from 100% bits and lines and, even more impressively, wrings 100% from 75% bits and lines. Like, Katherine issuing her writers numbers since she fails to remember all their names, leading to a climactic punchline that you can, as they say, see coming from miles away but which still made me laugh out loud simply because Thompson’s drolly apologetic delivery is so damn impeccable; a la the great comic her character is supposed to be, Thompson makes the expected seem spontaneous.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

“Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” begins with the camera trained on an Idaho wheat field looking out toward a mountain vista, emitting a feeling of timelessness, far away from everything. This, we eventually learn, is precisely why Thunderbolt (Clint Eastwood), infamous bank robber whose preference for using an autocannon to crack a safe departs severely from normal safecracking methodology, has come here to drop out of society by masquerading as preacher to a small congregation. The scene in which we see him ministering feels like an inside joke; see Clint Eastwood in a cleric’s collar! But that collar gets removed right quick when a few enemies show up looking for money they are owed, apparently having ferreted out his ruse, and sending him running through those very same wheat fields, interrupting their idyll. That he escapes is only because Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) happens to be passing by in a Trans-Am on a dirt road, allowing Thunderbolt to hitch a ride. Turns out these enemies of Thunderbolt’s are old cohorts who want money their owed and which the faux-man of the cloth has apparently stashed in, nodding to a bygone era, a one-room schoolhouse whose exact location proves elusive.


If Cimino’s film culminates with an invasion of an Idaho armory, it is never quite as spectacular as that sounds, content to meander along at its own pace, emblemized in the sequence where we see just how Lightfoot came to be in possession of this Trans Am – that is, by stealing it. But if it’s a robbery, it hardly feels like one, him getting behind the wheel of the car and conversing with the salesman, Bridges playing the moment less like a thief than a wonky consumer who’s trying to make up his mind in the moment whether to just drive the car right off the lot. Why once the two men become highway companions, it still takes at least half an hour before Lightfoot even broaches the possibility of a bank robbery, though even then it sounds impromptu, not a plan hatched but an idea just loosely mentioned, underscored by how its recounted in long shot, making it feel unceremonious. And this speaks to how Cimino, though he doubles as screenwriter, makes the wide-open locales and accompanying visuals half the point, evoking the lyricism of an American road trip, frequently capturing his characters under blue skies, like a hitchhiking scene where even as Cimino keeps his camera low, it doesn’t feel as if the two men are looming over us so much as the atmosphere looms over them. Even when the duo brawls with their pursuing enemies, Cimino allows them a catch-their-breath interval alongside a creek in a panoramic ravine.

When those enemies – Red (George Kennedy) and Eddie (Geoffrey Lewis) – do eventually catch up to Thunderbolt, and by extension Lightfoot, they demand what they are owed, only to be informed the money has gone missing because the schoolhouse has too. That leads to Thunderbolt suggesting a copycat of the armory heist he’s pulled once before to pay what’s owed. As elsewhere, however, Cimino chooses against rushing into things, lingering over the four men taking jobs to fund their operation to humorous effect, never more than a shot of Eddie, having taken a job peddling ice cream, emerging from a garage aboard his little ice cream scooter alongside several others, like a Bizarro World version of Brando’s “Wild One” motorcycle gang, stripping the sheen off any idea of these men as romantic outlaws.

Cimino skewers the very idea of romance too. Rarely are women glimpsed in “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” except as objects of lusty affection, and almost always through Red, whether his sweaty mug is listening to Lightfoot recount his glimpse of an unclothed woman or, in a moment involving the heist, walking in on a couple young lovebirds and, despite the situation’s prevailing urgency, spending a few seconds just watching. This is consciously contrasted against Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, where Bridges frequently has his character look longingly toward Eastwood’s in such a way to muddy the lines between paternal and carnal, looks that Eastwood receives coolly, acknowledging the deeper meaning without necessarily offending his no doubt masculine audience. Then again, one element of the heist involves Lightfoot donning a dress, and when he and Thunderbolt cruise into a drive-in, as if on a date, to briefly hide out, the implications are laid bare. So too are they when Red, as the heist goes belly up, gives Lightfoot a beating within an inch of his life, as if reestablishing heteronormativity through violence.


There is wicked irony in the heist not being new, merely a copycat of an earlier heist. If Cimino’s eventual cinematic boondoggle “Heaven’s Gate” returned to the start of American expansion westward then “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” picks up where expansion has essentially hit a brick wall, nowhere else to go but back to the same well. And even if Thunderbolt and Lightfoot make it out of the heist alive, and then locate the schoolhouse with the stashed money, the building’s location, having been moved and turned into a historical site, betrays the idea of the world moving on from and closing in on these two men. It’s telling that they drive off not into a sunset but toward the mountains, as if their destiny is simply to vanish among them, brought home in Lightfoot’s fate, a virtuoso bit of physical acting by Bridges where, his character apparently suffering the after-effects of a savage beating by Red, he improbably evinces the notion of all life exiting his body, transforming the words he spouts about feeling like a “hero” into a last-gasp effort to give his demise some sort of happy meaning, exposing it as cruelly meaningless.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Forgotten Great Moments in Movie History

The first Jean-Claude Van Damme movie I ever saw was “Double Team” (1997). I saw it not because of Van Damme, mind you, but because of The Muscles from Brussels’s co-star making his movie debut – Dennis Rodman. The Worm, after all, was and remains my favorite professional athlete, dating back to his days with the Bad Boys-era Detroit Pistons, a defensive genius and rebounding savant, his basketball IQ hovering around 200. Yet I loved him just as much when he went full diva, coloring his hair, dating Madonna, hanging backstage with Pearl Jam, publishing ho-hum books, spouting banalities disguised as inanities. It was in his Diva Period when he made Tsui Hark’s “Double Team”, released as his then-team, the Chicago Bulls, were mounting their (eventually successful) assault on a second consecutive NBA title, like, I dunno, if Draymond Green had starred in the latest Johnnie To joint this spring. Rodman might not have set Hollywood figuratively ablaze with his turn, “mumbl(ing) his way through some unintelligible lines,” as Jeff Vice noted for the Deseret News, but he was, as Vice also wrote, “less wooden than his Chicago Bulls teammate Michael Jordan (“Space Jam”).” Take that, your Airness!


Indeed, while it might be traditional for NBA players moonlighting as actors to play a loose version of their basketball playing self, if not just playing themselves outright, be it Jordan in “Space Jam”, be it Julius Erving in “The Fish Who Saved Pittsburgh”, be it Kyrie Irving in “Uncle Drew”, Rodman both did and did not follow this template. Yes, he was playing an arms dealer named Yaz, but Yaz recolored his hair so frequently and dropped basketball references so incessantly, including his former team (“I don’t play with the bad boys anymore, only the good guys”) that it was difficult not to read him as Rodman. That is why the best moment in “Double Team”, as most cinematic scholars agree, occurs when Rodman’s character, in the throes of an arms sale with Van Damme’s, counters the latter’s observation that “Offense gets the glory” by remarking “But defense wins the game.” No one has ever been more qualified to give that cliché a ring of Socratic truth than Dennis Rodman. In his 1996 profile of the future Hall-of-Famer for The New Yorker John Edgar Wideman wrote that “His helter-skelter, full-court, full-time intensity blurs the line between defense and offense”, suggesting Rodman as the living, breathing embodiment of his “Double Team” wisecrack.

As a hardwood-obsessed international man of mystery, Rodman was, in a way, presaging his bizarre, tragic, dude-you-gotta-stop self-appointment as American emissary to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since, his Basketball IQ failing to translate to international diplomacy, he seems to view, a la our current American Ringmaster-in-Chief, the Supreme Leader as a charitable dude. North Korea, of course, hacked Sony Pictures in 2014, and targeted American businesses earlier this year as T*ump and Kim Jong Un were meeting, to say nothing of Russia’s attempts to hack into the American Presidential Election of 2016. It was these attacks, and others, that led, as The New York Times recently reported, and as The New York Time’s Daily Podcast recently recounted, to the United States Defense Department forming a Cyber Command, one that is currently hitting back at Russia, an online arms race of sorts, leading Daily Host Michael Barbaro to summarize “You have to go on the offense to really be on the defense”, at which point I paused and marveled, just marveled, at a current state of affairs so preposterous they were prophesized by Dennis Rodman.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Notes on the You Oughta Know Scene in Booksmart


These days everywhere I, forty (one) year old man, go, I see young women who were probably barely alive when I was teenager, if they were alive at all, dressed like Alicia Silverstone in Aerosmith’s “Cryin’” video. You know what I’m talking about Gen Xers: the red flannel, the boot cut jeans, the combat boots. This is not a new observation, of course. Fashion, like everything, is cyclical and so every generation experiences it. One of my senior photos from the mid-90s involved wearing a polyester shirt and striking the “Saturday Night Fever” pose. But that makes it no less weird when it’s your generation’s turn. And what makes copying Alicia’s look weirder is that Alicia’s look was deliberate disinterest – it declared: “I don’t care how I look.” For Gen X, it wasn’t cool to care, see. That’s why in the video she reeled in Stephen Dorff by making him care and then shoved that care right back in his face with the bungee jump fake-out concluding with the most memorable middle finger in the history of the world.

I tried to act like I didn’t care in the mid-90s but it never really took. That’s why when I arrived a few seconds late to Mr. Calvert’s sociology class knowing full well that his rules dictated showing up after the bell meant a detention, I didn’t challenge his rules by coolly acting apathetic toward them but dutifully showed up for detention the next morning. And that’s why I loved Alanis Morissette. Oh, Alanis was ironic too, sure, of course, which is why her biggest hit was literally called “Ironic”, a song constantly cited my pseudo-observationalists (sic) for not really being ironic at all which, of course, duh, is ironic. But her first hit, “You Oughta Know”, released in the summer before my senior year, an Alternative “You’re So Vain” fiery screed against an ex, was earnest, vehemently so, not ironic. I had no exes, mind you, to hold grudges against because I had no exes at all, but I sort of semi-innately grasped that I preferred being earnest to ironic and I cherished the blood-in-the-mouth earnestness of “You Oughta Know.”

----------


“10 Things I Hate About You” was released at the tail-end of the late 90s teen movie boom. And though in his disaffected air Heath Ledger’s Patrick Verona seemed to emerge straight from the Seattle (where the movie was set) grunge scene, when it came time for his character to declare romantic affection for Julia Stiles’s Kat Stratford by publicly serenading her he did so not by singing a song of the era but by reaching back, all the way to 1967 and Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”

I heard “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” frequently on KIOA, the Des Moines, Iowa oldies station, which is what me and my best pals Jacob and Kris were often tuned into while riding around in Kris’s car with no real point or purpose, through the quasi-mean streets of West Des Moines or along scenically rural Highway 6 toward Adel and then possibly north to Panora, where Kris’s parents had a lake house where we would listen to more KIOA while playing ping pong in the basement. One summer night – and I hesitate to divulge this information – the three of us were up way too late and kept calling in to the poor late night D.J. requesting songs which led to him playing a Billy Joe Royal tune of his own accord and then instructing us to call back in after the song was over to discuss it which we did because we were hella cool. KIOA was a constant, joyful companion.

“There Goes My Baby” by The Drifters. “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes. “Back in My Arms Again” by The Supremes. These were, and remain, some of my favorite songs of all-time. These were not songs I loved ironically. These were songs I loved as much as “Check the Rhime” by A Tribe Called Quest, “Creep” by TLC, and “Leaving Las Vegas” by Sheryl Crow. I was falling in love with the same music my parents fell in love with when the music was brand new, which wasn’t bad or troubling, just disorienting, at least for them.

----------


One of the most delightful moments of Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart” finds one of her co-protagonists, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) at a night-before-graduation party being forced by the girl on whom she’s crushing into performing “You Oughta Know” karaoke, an interesting song choice given it’s a quarter-century old. Wilde is apparently a fan of Alanis’s hit and, per the HuffPost, wrote a letter to Morissette hoping to acquire the rights which, obviously, were granted. In the letter, Wilde gushed about what the song meant to her, and at the end of the article she spoke about introducing the song to a whole new generation. To that point, I have encountered scuttlebutt, mostly in the is-this-real-life-or-not environs of Twitter that have questioned the song choice and how it differs from, say, 2017’s “Lady Bird” which employed an actual song (“Crash” by Dave Matthews Band) of the actual time (2002) for its big musical moment.

But in the same HuffPost article Dever cited “You Oughta Know” as her karaoke song, suggesting it already has trickled down to today’s youth, which is precisely why I, aging Gen Xer, who used to rock out to “You Oughta Know” in his car on the tape that I recorded it to from CD, found this scene as disorienting as I did moving. It’s as if I was suddenly transported back to the house I grew up in but not as myself, no, but merely an impartial observer, watching my parents watch youthful me, seeing what it was finally like for them to see their son singing along to KIOA, the passage of time laid bare even as it simultaneously blurred all lines.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A Simple Favor

Defining perfect casting is a difficult task. One assumes there is some data obsessive concocting a methodology right now to quantify movie casting, God help us. But if I was to mount an argument for someone being perfectly cast, I might do so on behalf of Anna Kendrick in 2018’s “A Simple Favor.” She plays mommy vlogger Stephanie Smothers, an incredible name suggesting a burgeoning artisinal jam empire, who opens the film mid-vlog, about to recite a recipe for all her followers only to first provide an update about the seemingly tragic disappearance of her best friend, a quick window into the film’s genre and tonal shape-shifting which Kendrick’s performance manages to glide through. Indeed, if she’s a great mom and excellent cook, Kendrick plays these domestic scenes with the air of a displaced high-strung A student putting too much pressure on herself, feeding into the film’s eventual threads of mystery, role-playing, even violence. When her character snoops around a Tom Ford wannabe’s office, Kendrick makes it feel not out of place or even like an unexpected rush, really, but an obvious outgrowth of who she already is, like cataloguing recipes and spying go hand-in-hand. And by blending these seemingly disparate tones, Feig elicits the idea of motherhood’s extreme stress, giving it a gravely comic ring, which is truly when the film is best, though it considerably weakens when trying to stretch out its mystery.


That mystery involves Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), Stephanie’s self-appointed bestie, a mysterious mother of another boy at Stephanie’s son school who the other parents – represented by a trio that seem displaced from a pure Paul Feig comedy – discuss in tones of humor barely concealing straight-up fear. And though it takes a lot to live up to a character who hangs a painting of her nude self in her own living room, Lively succeeds, who as a public-relations something-or-other does not curse people out over the phone in the manner of, say, Tom Cruise in “Tropic Thunder” but with a cool superiority to these faceless peons, copying her speaking voice from the way her character makes a martini – very dry. And that’s how she looks too upon meeting Stephanie outside her son’s school. Lively is eight inches taller than Kendrick, per the Interwebs, and Feig smartly accentuates this difference in their characters’ introductory scene, eliciting the distinct impression that even as Emily talks to Stephanie she is nevertheless talking right over her, and which Kendrick furthers by meekly withdraw into herself. And when Emily invites Stephanie over for gin & vermouth, it begins their dangerous semi-liaison.

Lively’s impeccably tailored costumes make her seem out of time and so does her sleek, modish home, all perfectly playing off Kendrick’s homeyness. And this otherworldliness becomes intoxicating to Stephanie, just as Emily does. Indeed, Lively’s performance is innately physical, the way she guzzles martinis and slings back on her sleek sofa, her cool langorousness emblemized in her vocal fry, which you can practically feel slicing open Stephanie’s cheerful reserve. And Kendrick doesn’t downplay the quixotic attraction she feels, her expressions making clear that this attraction is both real and sort of happening despite herself, like she can’t control it. It’s no wonder, then, that Emily so effortlessly reels in Stephanie’s most deep, dark secret, one that the movie never quite knows what to do with other than use it as leverage down the road, suggesting how “A Simple Favor” sadly trends second-rate when this tantalizing co-dependency is moved aside after Emily goes missing.


“A Simple Favor” is the rare movie that grows monotonous as it goes off the rails, failing to effuse the sort of energy that narrative rail-jumping sometimes entails, each twist escalating with such absurdity that if you do not see them coming, not exactly, you feel them coming anyway, which might as well be the same thing. What’s worse, as Emily vanishes, her husband takes her place in the plot, played by Henry Golding, who between this and “Crazy Rich Asians” is proving himself the consummate humdrum actor, specifically devoid of the devious energy “A Simple Favor” requires. When Emily summons him to a bathroom – twice! – for a kinky tryst he looks like he’s marching himself in chains. Unwind, my man! Have some fun! How he wound up with Emily, I have no idea, but it only puts into perspective that Emily and Stephanie were meant for each other, their bond the delicious hot mess the rest of this movie could never hope to be.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Non-Fiction

At one point in “Non-Fiction”, the plight of Parisian publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet) is compared to Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light”, the 1963 Swedish film to which last year’s marvelous “First Reformed” owed a great debt. That might sound odd given the grim aesthetics of the latter two and the breezy, French-influenced style of the first, but crises of faith come in many varieties. And in Olivier Assayas’s latest cinematic exercise in wordy philosophical wrangling, Alain’s livelihood is under siege, the digital age threatening extinction for the printed word, where the question bandied about is not so much what art means as what art is, where Tweets are compared to haiku with scornful surrender. And though “Winter Light’s” Pastor and “First Reformed’s” Reverend frequently suffered their anguish in solitude, Alain suffers it in the company of friends and family and others, over wine and food and in cafés, which sounds, frankly, less torturous than pleasant, and is, not incidentally, where professional and relationship predicaments go down like a shot of espresso – take it, move on. And if almost everyone is involved in the arts, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) is not, a political consultant sarcastically derided for this occupation, as if trying to initiate change rather than merely pontificating about it denotes some starry-eyes. It’s telling that Assayas’s camera throughout never strays far from his actors, inducing a purposeful claustrophobia, tethering us to these people, just as they are tethered to one another, espousing endlessly in their isolated highbrow castles.


This conversational emphasis makes “Non-Fiction” a dizzying experience – particularly if you don’t speak French, as I don’t, and are keeping one eye on the subtitles and one on the faces on the screen – suggesting Steven Soderbergh’s all-talk all-the-time “High Flying Bird.” But then, “High Flying Bird” mainly consisted of conversations with significant transactional worth, and while that’s partially true of “Non-Fiction”, with the loose plot involving a possible sale of Alain’s publishing house, much of the technological small talk feels a bit dated by 2019 standards, which might simply stem from the release date but nevertheless stresses how quickly things change even as those changes elicit little difference, which “Non-Fiction” makes clear by quoting “The Leopard” (1963): “For things to remain the same everything must change.”

In his previous film “Personal Shopper”, Assayas fashioned a high-tech ghost story by equating the idea of nothing ever really being gone in the digital age with a sort of modern supernaturalism. And though questions of whether a digital imprint can last as long as print in a tangible text are raised throughout “Non-Fiction”, the film is more concerned with an obsession for the present, underlined not just in Alain’s ironic affair with his company’s digital strategist (Christa Theret) but how the fiction of author Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) is obviously pulled from his own life, including an affair with Alain’s wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), a fact which everyone is capable of recognizing but him. The latter makes for some of the film’s best humor simply in Macaigne’s semi-permanent state of hangdog bewilderment, as if he’s constantly trying to work out what makes the punchline of his own life so funny. And if you wonder why Selena might wind up with him in the first place, Binoche’s oft-cheerful uninhibited air suggests Why Not?, though she subtly turns her frequent smile into a shiv when it comes time to make things clear to him, a moment in which she has her character treat Léonard with the same casual contempt she directs toward a server over a needlessly iced glass of orange juice, momentarily puncturing the haughty bubble in which these characters exist.


Valérie, deliberately positioned as an outsider, punctures that bubble too, whether telling her spouse in no uncertain terms to buck up when his latest novel is rejected or not so much tendering forgiveness upon his confession of marital sin as negotiating compromise. The latter leads directly to the last scene in which ex-adulterous lovers and their spouses cordially convene, functioning less like a conclusion than the starting point and ending point of a circle, deftly bringing the borrowed “Leopard” quote to full life.