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Olivier Assayas’s Quest for Originality

“Non-Fiction,” his new film, is about getting by in a disrupted world.

Courtesy of IFC Films

“Typical of French cinema,” a journalist smirks, describing the work of a director he sees as a soggy, pretentious remnant of the New Wave. “Cinema about your nombril”—your navel—“only to please yourself, not for the public.” In this scene from Olivier Assayas’s weird and delightful 1996 film, Irma Vep, the journalist tries to convince the luminous action star Maggie Cheung that it’s long past time for these moribund old farts, these intellectuals reliant on state funding, to cede the field; John Woo, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jean-Claude Van Damme make movies people actually want to watch. Cheung politely disagrees, and spends the rest of her time on screen exploding his filmmaking categories. From scene to scene, you see her in her latex catsuit, stealing jewelry and scaling buildings in a rainstorm, holding the center of an intimate drama, and conjuring the mid-century avant-garde in long, scratched-lens close-ups.

That’s a lot to take in, but then, rare is the Assayas film that doesn’t aim to have it all ways at once. His latest, Non-Fiction, set in the Parisian publishing scene, is very different, stylistically, from Irma Vep, yet many of its fundamental concerns—about what of the past is worth preserving and how; about the workings of art and commerce in a fast-moving global economy—are the same. And, like many of his more recent works, especially Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, the new film places its characters in a more or less uncomfortable layering of different realities, in an effort to capture the unsettling texture of the present.

Non-Fiction begins with Alain (Guillaume Canet), a slick book editor, going to lunch with Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), a schlubby, self-indulgent novelist, to tell him that he won’t be publishing his latest manuscript, which feels tired and unimaginative. From there, the film immerses us in anxious arguments about transparency and privacy, fake news and public opinion, image and ambition. Is Twitter the sign of a desiccated culture feeding on what’s left of itself (as Léonard gripes) or a revival of the best of café society? If information is so unreliable, then why should the public be expected to pay for it? E-book sales are down 15 percent: Will print survive or are audiobooks the only hope? These are questions of survival for Alain, caught between the new digital expert he has hired, a young woman raring to restructure the whole business, and his company’s main investor, who’s threatening to sell to a shady tycoon.

Alain’s wife, Selena (played by Assayas stalwart Juliette Binoche), is an actress filming the latest season of a TV series, Collusion, in which she plays a cop, or, as she keeps insisting, a “crisis-management expert.” Léonard is married to Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), who works for an up-and-coming leftist politician. (“Voting for him isn’t much of a turn-on,” Léonard tells her. Stung, she replies, “You vote to get turned on?”) Léonard claims to look down on escapism and is proud to write “feel-bad books,” just as Selena insists she didn’t go into acting to distract or “relax” anyone—but then, like everyone else, they both still want to get paid. Nearly everybody is playing their own game here, as they try to get by in a compromised and compromising environment.

If being trapped for two hours in the company of French bourgeois discussing such questions over terrine or drinks in bistros and offices and hotels and living rooms sounds like a kind of hell, that’s to seriously underestimate Assayas. His films, forged from a mix of influences—Asian as well as French—often emphasize the risk and strangeness inherent in familiar social worlds, by injecting fantastical or otherwise unpredictable elements into them: Corporate competition becomes a bloody, eroticized spectacle in Demonlover; Personal Shopper makes the fashion industry feel like a natural setting for a ghost story or a stalker-themed thriller.

Born in the 1950s, Assayas started his career writing criticism for Cahiers du Cinéma, that incubator of the New Wave, in 1980, before making his debut feature, Disorder, in 1986. Just young enough to miss out on May 1968 and its feeling of real revolutionary possibility, he nonetheless found a set of guiding ideas in Guy Debord’s Situationists—the anti-capitalist, anti-state group that critiqued existence under consumer capitalism and aimed to create moments or “situations” that could bring the force and beauty of art into everyday life, to show that an alternate world order was possible. (He works with many of the same performers and technicians again and again, and has written about filmmaking as a rare form of “non-alienated collective work.”) Meanwhile, from the London punk scene of the 1970s, he took the message that you needn’t learn to play before picking up your own instruments—better to figure it out as you go than work your way up from assistanthood. As wary of highbrow pretensions as he is of commercial moviemaking and its co-option of a once-rebellious youth culture, he has often sought originality in the cracks between high and low genres.

The characters in Non-Fiction seem at first to be familiar types, but most of them are painfully aware that they are acting out clichés—that’s all part of the stress and exhaustion of living at the end of an era. There’s no division here between work and life, and no prizes for guessing who’s sleeping with whose spouse or colleague. Valérie has to negotiate problems of openness and secrecy at home as well as on the campaign trail: It’s not that she believes in “concealment and hypocrisy,” she tells Léonard, but “I believe in the implicit. I know, you know; no need to get bogged down.” This scene, in which she tries to stop her husband unburdening himself, is both funnier and more affecting than you’d expect. The least he could do, you realize, is have the courtesy, respect, and good taste not to start blabbing about his liaisons now. Valérie is already well aware of them, especially since most of the time, she observes, “The truth is in your books.” Fiction’s fiction, he protests, and she says, “Apparently not that much.” Changing the names is rather beside the point.

Léonard often receives this critique outside the home too. In a live radio interview, he’s called on to justify a scene in which his protagonist gets a blow job during a screening of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. He protests that it’s a harmless joke—though his predicament is more amusing for Assayas’s viewer, who has already learned that the offending blow job is drawn from his life; it actually took place during one of the later Star Wars movies, which certainly makes more intuitive sense, and Léonard has only veiled it with the Haneke in a vacuous bid to seem hip and arty. When he’s confronted by a hostile crowd at a Q and A, he’s blindsided by the suggestion it was unethical of him to have written so openly about his ex-wife, Solange, who has complained online of feeling violated. She’s free to write about the same events if she wants, he shrugs.

You can’t tell how good you’re supposed to believe Léonard’s novels are, but what’s clear is that as well as being an egotistical hypocrite, he is in his own way serious about writing, and willing to make sacrifices for it. The same goes for Selena’s acting and Valérie’s political work. Alain, too, is more of a romantic than he first appears, doing what he must in order to preserve what’s important to him, which is literature as much as his own career. What’s oddly touching as the movie goes on is the sense that everyone must force themselves to operate in a cynical mode—in politics or publishing, people keep agreeing, integrity is an embarrassing irrelevance—in order to conform to reality and its conditions, but most all of them have other, less debased commitments they are trying to protect. They expend far more energy keeping this secret, even from themselves, than hiding their business-as-usual adulteries.

These divisions and contradictions—between what’s real and performed, between the self and the collective—seem close to Assayas’s heart. He has written of two possibilities for art—one is to push through into whatever small spaces are still left for avant-garde experiment; another is to pursue the more universal or timeless lure of figuration. The results can be uneven (hence Assayas’s films often divide opinion) and usually depend heavily on virtuosic performances. He leaves both the actors and the audience a lot of space for interpretation, and he likes to walk the line between the fascinating and the ludicrous, just where a set of ideas might turn into a mess. “What I am most interested in,” he once told a reporter, speaking of his work with Maggie Cheung, “is what contradicts what I have written, because that’s exactly where real life moves into the film.”

On the surface, Non-Fiction appears to side with figuration—it’s one of Assayas’s small, social, observational dramas, as opposed to his larger-scale conceptual spectacles. But there’s more going on here than character study. Sudden slippages call into question the reality of what we’re watching. People get each other’s names wrong, and it turns out that Selena has contacted the real-life Juliette Binoche, asking if she’d like to be the reader for Léonard’s audiobook. Having repeatedly claimed that her character on Collusion—or is it Collision?—is a crisis-management expert, Selena now corrects a viewer who refers to her that way. She says she’s just a cop. When Léonard and Valérie visit the other couple’s vacation home—the film’s crowded, claustrophobic settings suddenly giving way to a vast expanse of trees and water—Selena announces that her character on Collusion will be killed off. As if sending up the barely contained marital tensions in the group, she improvises: “Her husband can’t stand her. He strangles her then dissolves her body in acid.”

In context, these moments don’t feel like arch, metafictional winks, so much as a formal extension of the film’s concerns with image and reality, the multiple other selves and other lives people must negotiate online and off, and how binding and freeing, by turns, that negotiation can be. It’s as if Assayas wants to tease the viewer who may expect something “typical”—whether that’s an upscale French drama, a more Cahiers-worthy experiment, or a Hollywood-style thriller. You should never assume you know what genre you’re in, he hints, till the very last frame.