Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Now that I’ve been doing this blog for a while, I’m beginning to lap certain filmmakers. So I already gathered a few thoughts on Olivier Assayas here.
But Assayas has a new film opening this weekend, Non-Fiction, and it’s a goodie, even if not, I think, at his tip-top level. I didn’t get to write a proper review, so a few random thoughts:
Non-Fiction is a reminder of how strong Woody Allen’s influence is on European filmmakers. Officially canceled in the US of A, Allen’s work remains a touchstone on the other side of the pond, and Assayas appears to be “doing a Woody” (in the immortal words of William Hurt upon his participation on Allen’s Alice), indulging in the look and rhythm of the Hannah and Her Sisters era. It wears nicely, and Assayas shows more patience for shaping scenes than Allen has in many years.
Even given that sense of shaping, there are things in Non-Fiction that feel a little lazy. (The very last moments, for instance.) Assayas sticks to a certain style in this film, and I found myself occasionally wishing for something to break through that cozy manner. (There’s a joke about Juliette Binoche, a little Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday thing, that accomplishes this for a moment.)
The reverence for conversation—whether sincere soul-searching or artsy flapdoodle—is a sacred trust to French filmmakers. Assayas upholds this trust with a torrential rain of talk, some of it relevant to matters at hand, some of it smokescreen, some of it just glorious talk for its own sake. People do talk in life. Screenwriting books that teach people to cut the dialogue are frequently on the right track, but there’s nothing wrong with characters talking a lot. And since the movie is set in the world of writers and publishers, this is apt.
The film is a reminder of the bottomless supply of acting talent in France. Binoche and Guilluame Canet are familiar actors (here playing an actress and a publisher, married to each other but having affairs, naturallement), but I was unfamiliar with Vincent Macaigne and Nora Hamzawi, who play the second-but-equal leads—he a horny writer whose romans are extremely a clef, she his apparently very patient girlfriend, a political consultant. They are all splendid, sloppily human, utterly engaging.
I liked the film more for its minute-by-minute texture and comedy than for its central theme, which is about how one world adjusts to the glorious new digitization of everything. Nevertheless, a poignant theme—a lost cause, at this point. The transition comes across as wistful in Non-Fiction, even if some people are putting up a fight, and I appreciate the wistfulness. The evidence of a pre-digital world is like something preserved in a cultural zoo: the soft, shot-on-film look, the erudite talk, the spectacle of people lounging around in chairs talking to each other face-to-face instead of texting each other (although there’s some of the latter, too, and of course Assayas proved in Personal Shopper that he is not above using cellphones for key plot-carrying). Spending time in this pre-digital world is a balm in and of itself.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.