' ' Cinema Romantico: Non-Fiction

Monday, June 17, 2019


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.

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