Director Olivier Assayas Talks ‘Non-Fiction’

“Non-Fiction,” also known in France as “Doubles vies,” follows a series of romantic affairs set in the publishing world.

In a typical American romcom, the narrative revolves around two people hooking up. This French romcom, on the other hand, is anything but typical: Everybody is sleeping with everyone else’s spouses. Add to the mix the extraordinary talent of writer/director Olivier Assayas, and you have a genre-mixing cinematic delight that is at once talky and opinionated.

The sexual intrigue aside, “Non-Fiction” really wants to deal with how analog people incorporate the inevitable digital revolution into their lives.

The couples consist of Guillaume Canet, who runs a boutique book firm, and his famous actress wife, Juliette Binoche, who stars in a popular police television series. Meanwhile, Binoche is having a years long affair with an author (Vincent Macaigne) that Canet publishes. Macaigne’s wife (Nora Hamzawi), a political consultant, knows about her husband’s infidelity with her infinite sense of intuition, yet she is more concerned that her two cell phones and iPad are fully charged before each day’s work.

Canet himself has seduced his assistant Laure (Christa Théret,) who has been hired to bring the publishing company into the 21st century with her astute knowledge of digital platforms. The original working title for the movie was “E-book.”

It turns out that electronic books sell better than hard copy editions. Macaigne’s character Léonard uses self-referential details in his book with slight alternations. For instance, when he and Binoche had sex at a movie it was during “The Force Awakens,” but in his book the movie is the severe art house fave, “The White Ribbon.”

Audiences that appreciate the kind of detailed conversations that evolve at intimate wine parties will celebrate “Non-Fiction.” This is not a film for the John Wick or Avengers crowd.

Local art house mavens have a bonus in store as one of the few songs heard on the soundtrack, “Late For My Funeral,” is by Mike Stinson, one of the top musicians that Houston has to offer.

By the end, we’ve watched the relationships between the couples grow stronger in a way that only heart-to-heart dialogue and head-to-head declarations can afford.

Assayas Interview

At the 2018 edition of SXSW, Screen Reflections had the opportunity to talk with Assayas, who had just wrapped production on “Non-Fiction.” He was at the film festival promoting a restored version of his 1992 film “Cold Water.”

In 1995, the Rice Media Center had presented a retrospective of Assayas’ early films, and the program included a playlist of rock songs that played before each film.

“I had fun making a playlist. Anytime anyone asks I am glad to do it. Also it was a way to be there as I could not personally be there,” says Assayas.

In “Cold Water,” rock music of the 1970s is masterfully integrated into the tale. Songs like Donovan’s “Cosmic Wheels,” Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” Joplin singing “Me and Bobby McGee” and CCR with “Up Around the Bend,” which actually plays twice during the film back-to-back. It’s like someone starts the song over just to bask in its radiance. The story follows a young couple in the early 1970s that flee from big city madness only to end up in a commune where an incredible party that takes up an hour of the movie is taking place.

“That how I function, I think the intro to ‘Up Around the Bend’ is so incredible that’s it’s worth listening to twice,” says Assayas.

“Much later I made another movie about the ‘70s, ‘Something in the Air’ [2012] and I used prog rock, Syd Barret, Nick Drake, it had The Incredible String Band, it had Captain Beefheart, which was more like the stuff I was listening to in the ‘70s,” says Assayas.

“When I made the playlist for ‘Cold Water’ I used mainstream songs that everybody knew. That would’ve been believable at that kind of party.”

While his filmography goes back to the early 1980s, Assayas has made significant film in the last decade with films like “Carlos,” “The Clouds of Sils Maria,” and “Personal Shopper.”

Carlos follows the true story of Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez who gave birth to a worldwide terrorist organization in the 1970s. “It was financed by television but I never envisioned it as television,” says Assayas.

“Carlos” runs five-and-a-half hours and never falters in pace.

“I got involved and realized as long as it plays as a TV-movie in France it can be a movie around the world. I could make an international film based on the budget of a French mini-series,” says Assayas. “It was the opposite of what usually happens when you shoot for TV, which is about controlling the format.”

“Carlos” won a Golden Globe and also won lead actor Edgar Ramírez the French César Award.

“He had to put on so much weight for the ending. It was such a profound and intense involvement on his part in the character, I remember him telling me he needed three months to chill out,” he says.

Recently, Juliette Binoche has become the go-to actress for his films. “She has this lively inventive energy that’s beneficial for the other actors. In ‘Sils Maria’ Kristen Stewart and Binoche pushed each other to be better. Kristen wanted to do the movie because she admired Juliette and wanted to see how she functioned. She absorbed the kind of freedom Juliette displays,” Assayas says.

“Clouds of Sils Maria” was nominated for six César nominations, the French equivalent of the Academy Awards, and Stewart won for Best Supporting Actress, the only American actress to have been so honored.

From the Hollywood Reporter review of “Clouds of Sils Maria” at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival by Todd McCarthy:

“The title refers to a phenomenon called the Maloja Snake, a meteorological occurrence sometimes visible in the Engadin Valley near the Alpine town of Sils Maria; mist and fog gather into low-lying cloud formations that move like a huge snake between the mountains, a spectacle the film offers twice, in black-and-white footage shot in 1924 by famous mountain filmmaker Arnold Fanck, and in newly made color material.”

The footage seen in Sils Maria comes from Fanck’s 1924 short “Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja” and Assayas used a helicopter during pre-production to find the exact spot where the silent film had been lensed.

“It was not that easy. We ended up working with mountain guides. We showed them footage and they figured it out.”

Assayas followed that up with “Personal Shopper,” which starred Stewart.

“It’s fine to call it a horror film, it’s a kind of a genre film but in the sense that Cronenberg makes genre films. Through genre you touch things that are somehow deeper than if it was non-genre,” says Assayas.

“When you do movies about emotion, feelings, psychology and such you are not limited by the format. When you move to an area where the invisible plays a part, what could be more powerful than reacting with your inner life?” asks Assayas.

“Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Carlos,” “Cold Water” and “Personal Shopper” are available in deluxe Blu-ray editions from the Criterion Collection.

— Michael Bergeron
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