Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction is a Funny but Empty Comedy: TIFF Review

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Olivier Assayas is the sort of director whose films talk quite a lot but he’s also one to lose himself in that conversation, and Non-Fiction builds itself within that realm. Yet there’s also another level to which the films of Assayas can find themselves teetering between being as insightful as ever or outright self-indulgent. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of his work, for his ability to make the very most out of small conversations that happen within the heat of the moment already feels like enough to make for something entertaining – and while I’m not going to deny that Non-Fiction has its more entertaining moments, I ended up leaving with an overwhelming feeling of dissatisfaction over myself. It stings even more, because this still remains the Olivier Assayas that I’ve always loved – yet here I am torn between deciding whether this is where he feels worn out or maybe I’m the one being worn and alienated. But I think if there’s anything else that I can say about what I’ve learned about Assayas from the many films of his that I’ve watched, it would be that I’ve always admired him more as a writer than I did as a director.

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Starring Guillaume Canet as Alain, a struggling author, Non-Fiction is a film all about the many changes that come by in the industries as new creators start coming in. He is married to the actress Selena (Juliette Binoche), who is the star of a popular television show – but does not enjoy her role very much on the program. As Alain struggles to adapt himself to the digital age, he meets another woman who helps him named Laure (Christa Théret) – with whom he begins an affair. Meanwhile, another romance has also been taking place for years on Selena’s end, with a man named Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), who is married to a left-wing political consultant named Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), an interest that doesn’t grab Léonard at all. As these connections start coming into place, there’s something far more insightful coming into play just from the many subjects that its characters continue talking about, almost in typical Olivier Assayas fashion. But maybe this is a case where it can all feel far too typical, even by Assayas’s standards and maybe it wouldn’t always end up landing as solidly as it should. Assayas has a way with making his characters talk and I will always admire him for that, but Non-Fiction just feels more like a case of himself being too caught up in even his own best tendencies to that point they’ll become their own worst enemy.

That’s not to say that the film doesn’t ever make me laugh but I’m not entirely sure if that humour always lands – particularly because I feel too at distance from the general scenario to really find myself wanting to get more involved with these characters. As a matter of fact, given the way in which Assayas makes them talk, that line between these people feeling like characters and more like lamentations upon the modern world only finds itself less blurred – not to say there’s a lot to lament about the way in which everything continues moving forward at way too quickly a pace, but it even sucks out the humour to an extent. You’ll find yourself laughing at one moment, and suddenly it just shifts away from that to the point you’ll only find yourself at an even greater distance from the general scenario and maybe that’s what Assayas would have wanted to show, especially given the sort of people that this is about. But I guess a part of me also doesn’t find the lives of people who only ever come off as snobs to be interesting enough to fill in a running time of nearly two hours. It just feels like they don’t have anything else to talk about that grants them a story, but Assayas works far too out of the picture from his audiences to really have something more going on visually in this instance.

I think because of how well Assayas ever really manages to work with writing dialogue, there’s also a part of me that wonders how much of this really ever felt like Assayas wanted to tell a story or just wanted to ramble about the modern world. You’ll have a really funny quip once in a while about the films of Michael Haneke for one, and even a joke about who would be replacing Selena on her show (this is easily the funniest moment of the whole film because of who was considered to replace her), but none of this ever really feels like it’s elevating the substance enough to make any of these characters as interesting as they sound. But whenever I’ve watched Assayas, I’ve always found that the way he writes stands out far more than his actual direction depending on whatever concepts he carries from the start, and that was something I kept on thinking about yet again here. For an Assayas film, it feels like it’s too caught up in looking ordinary to that point where everything becomes too ordinary; normally this shouldn’t be a detriment but because of the way his characters talk it even comes off as distracting. It was at this point I never really believed in these people as characters but rather as portions of ramblings from Assayas that never feel like they have much place within a narrative.

At his best, there’s always been something insightful coming out about how people interact with one another from anything by Assayas – especially as his work has always built itself upon intimate interactions between one another. Unfortunately in this case I don’t know how much of this I can really take before I’ve found my views on the outside world altered in any way by Assayas’s own musings, but I don’t know if they delivered the impact that he sought out. I was hoping for a whole lot more out of Olivier Assayas, and it just bums me to see that so much of what also kept me interested here would also have alienated me in a way that I can’t describe. At the very least it was funny then and there, but I’m still wondering what exactly was it that I was supposed to take out of an experience like this. Was I supposed to be up in arms about what these artists try to work towards as they can’t keep up, or was I supposed to be looking down from on them from my own position in life? Whatever the answer may be, I don’t know if it would have made me any more interested in the lives of these people as they are.


Watch a clip right here.

Images via TIFF.


Directed by Olivier Assayas
Screenplay by Olivier Assayas
Produced by Charles Gillibert
Starring Guillaume Canet, Juliette Binoche, Vincent Macaigne, Nora Hamzawi, Christa Théret, Pascal Greggory
Release Date: August 31, 2018 (Venice)
Running Time: 108 minutes

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