Non-Fiction (CIFF 2018)

Review by Kate Blair

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Non-Fiction finds Olivier Assayas exploring both new and familiar territory. Questions about the nature of art are never absent from his work, but each film takes on a different theme and runs with it, like a never-ending debate between friends. Non-Fiction is bursting with ideas, but they somehow all find a home together, touching on the changes wrought by our increasingly digital communications as well as the nature of fiction itself, and whether any narrative we create can actually be truthful. It’s a very talky film, and as such, maintains a tight focus on its actors, who all put forth nuanced, thoughtful, and often comical, performances.

Full disclosure—myself and a handful of other critics missed the first 10 minutes or so of this film because we were in the wrong screening room at CIFF (albeit, the one we were told the film would screen in). So I am likely missing some crucial context in this review. But happily, my disappointment quickly evaporated as I was drawn into the film.  

Non-Fiction centers on a group of well-to-do writers, publishers, and other artists. The film primarily centers on two married couples. One of these is Alain and Selena (Guillaume Canet and the always-marvelous Juliette Binoche). He is a publisher riding out the tides of change as his industry undergoes monumental 21st-century shifts. She is an actress, stuck in a television role that gives her little pleasure but has allowed her to enjoy mainstream recognition.

The second couple is Leonard and Valerie (Vincent Macaigne and Nora Hamzawi)—he a hapless writer, she managing the campaign of a socialist candidate. His fiction is thinly veiled autobiography, or auto-fiction, a term he eagerly adopts after an audience member at a q&a uses it to describe his work. She, a creator of her own kind of fictions, attempts to paint a positive image around an imperfect candidate.

In true Assayas fashion, the film reveals itself through dinner party conversations at wealthy estates, fancy living rooms, and cafes, as the characters discuss the finer points of digital life and the complex intermingling of communication and narrative. What kinds of stories are ensconced in a text message? A facial expression? In the midst of these heady conversations, more questions, both complex and simple, arise. In the end, the film offers hope in an environment clouded by everyday existential crises, that love, while inseparable from our personal and collective narratives, can still bring us to a place where we can momentarily forget about them.

screened as part of the 54th Chicago International Film Festival