Non-Fiction (2019; Olivier Assayas)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, May 31, at the Tower Theatre in Sacramento. Now playing in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Rafael.
“A Cloud of Mid-Life Crises”
Ever the lagger, Non-Fiction puts me seven films deep into the oeuvre of French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. In my defense, Assayas only started making feature films four decades ago, and I’m the worst. Unfortunately, Non-Fiction also marks my first Assayas dud.
The film stars Guillaume Canet and Juliette Binoche as Alain and Selena, a married couple indulging in extramarital affairs. Bored actress Selena sneaks around with Léonard, a not-that-famous writer known for rewriting his dalliances as thinly veiled “auto-fiction.” Meanwhile, disillusioned publisher Alain sleeps with Laure, a heartless, new-media evangelist a la Faye Dunaway in Network. Naturally, a dark cloud of midlife crises and intellectual despair hangs over the proceedings.
Like many Assayas movies, Non-Fiction concerns a generational divide, one that gets manifested as anxiety about art’s ability to survive. Whether in Irma Vep or Summer Hours, a tension between classic art forms and modern technology drives Assayas’ best films.
“Shrill Yet Robotic”
However, a proven formula turns sour in Non-Fiction. The film is a botched attempt to create a Woody Allen-style meta-comedy about unhappy intelligentsia. Assayas even borrows the “happy” ending from Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. He seems to want to satirize millennial pop-timists who embrace cultural apocalypse (“Tweets are modern-day haikus,” sighs a typical nitwit). Nevertheless, Non-Fiction almost immediately devolves into a series of shrill yet robotic debates.
The story starts to pick up steam after an aggravating first act, but the film never entirely penetrates past its aura of smirking dissatisfaction. Of course, Binoche would be watchable in something ten thousand times as deplorable, but she did the self-inventorying actress bit better in Clouds of Sils Maria.
No matter how abstract the dialectics in previous Assayas efforts, they always came encased in a bracingly cinematic shell. However, nothing in Non-Fiction resembles the raw power of Cold Water, the restless invention of Irma Vep, the icy beauty of Clouds of Sils Maria or the unsettling quiet of Personal Shopper. In fact, Non-Fiction feels positively anonymous, probably the most damning criticism I could ever level against an Assayas movie.