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The Magical, Self-Referential Cinema of Olivier Assayas

The French master has as fascinating a body of work as any of his peers. Why isn’t talked about among the greatest of his generation?

Ad Vitam/Les Films Du Losange/IFC Films/Dacia Films/Ringer illustration

In Olivier Assayas’s 2014 film Clouds of Sils Maria, the characters played by Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart—one a middle-aged French movie star and the other her millennial assistant—go to see a superhero movie together. Afterward, over beers in a hotel casino, they talk about their divergent reactions. “I stayed because of you but I could feel my brain cells dying one by one,” Binoche moans. “I know that if it was set on an assembly line or, like, a farm you’d love it,” Stewart retorts.

The dichotomies in play here are clear: young and old; Hollywood and indie; pop and political. And the costume design offers a built-in laugh track: art-house axiom Binoche wearing 3D glasses at the screening is a hell of a sight gag, while the pink-and-black Batman T-shirt Stewart’s character wears under her blazer hints at her allegiances. The dialogue is even more self-reflexive, as Stewart offers a defense of the X-Men-ish movie and its It Girl star (Chloë Grace Moretz) that sounds an awful lot like an apologia for her own real-life work in Twilight: “There’s no less truth than in a supposedly serious film.” Meanwhile, Binoche sounds a series of defensive, dismissive notes. “I have a hard time taking some bimbos in astronaut suits sounding off some generic pop psychology seriously,” she says, secure in the knowledge that even if she’s superficially out of touch, she’s in tune with some deeper cultural truths. Or is she just terrified that the cinema as she has known and loved it is entering its Endgame?

Change—its difficulty, its terror, its inevitability, and its necessity—is the through line that gives Assayas’s work its restless, headlong sense of momentum. At a time when art movies are sometimes grouped under the rubric of “slow cinema,” the French director generally makes fast films: Their speed is less a matter of narrative complication or frenetic editing than a fascination with the impermanence of things, places, people, and moments. Most of Assayas’s films deal with situations that are either in the midst of being radically destabilized or else on the cusp of some great upheaval, but they don’t deal in comic book apocalypses so much as everyday fears about what gets lost as time keeps on slipping into the future.

Something in the Air, his lovely 2012 roman à clef, riffs on Assayas’s politicized early-’70s adolescence—including sequences set during the culturally transformative Parisian student riots of May 1968. At the end of the film, the director’s surrogate Gilles (Clément Métayer) has secured a job with a company churning out cheapie monster movies; we see him on the set of a production improbably featuring cavemen, dinosaurs, Nazis, and bikini-clad girls. These cartoonish signifiers of the past are simultaneously graceful and absurd, suggesting a rich, mythic history receding in the rearview; at the same time, it’s as if Assayas’s lyrical, meticulous evocation of the period has been invaded by timeless avatars of schlock.

Such intrusions are not uncommon in Assayas’s work, as in Summer Hours —a delicate drama about a well-heeled family fretting over the fate of their country estate—but also features frequent forays into grittier territory. Assayas does genre without gentrifying it. In the terrifying Demonlover and the enjoyably scuzzy Boarding Gate, he successfully hybridizes thrills and metaphysics, never sacrificing visceral impact for intellectual heft (or vice versa).

The run of satisfying, engaging films that Assayas has made in the past 25 years—since the breakthrough of his fifth feature, Cold Water, in 1994 to the new Non-Fiction, which opens in Los Angeles this week—compares favorably against any American (or European) auteur working. For anybody who needs to catch up, the indispensable online streaming service MUBI has organized a partial retrospective of the director’s films this month, including the Sonic Youth–Metric concert movie Noise. The Criterion Channel is also currently showing Cold Water. And yet, like his countrywoman and friend (and fellow Twilight stan) Claire Denis, it hasn’t necessarily made him even an art-household name—a relative obscurity that has been a sign of the times for a while now.

The brilliant behind-the-scenes comedy Irma Vep—for my money, Assayas’s masterpiece—takes the marginalization of art cinema as its subject. It’s about a doomed attempt to remake Louis Feuillade’s 1915 serial Les Vampires—an epic, episodic melodrama whose narrative dangles from cliff-hangers more vertiginous than anything in the MCU—and pays tribute to France’s cinematic history while pondering its impasse. The character of the hapless, overmatched New Wave–vintage director René Vidal (played by New Wave poster boy Jean-Pierre Léaud) represents the waning creative and industrial potency of classical French auteurism, barely holding on against the globalized blockbusterization of his art form. Whether or not such ideologically loaded setups make Assayas’s nostalgia reactionary—or the cinematic equivalent of bourgeois self-pity—is a question worth asking, although more often than not, it’s answered by the films themselves, which have been constructed less as soapboxes than echo chambers in which multiple lines of argument are allowed to sound and reverberate against one another.

That talky cacophony is central to Non-Fiction, a movie that is made up almost entirely of long, winding, and at times insufferably lofty conversations between its characters, most of whom work as either writers or editors in the world of upscale book publishing—an analogue realm on the verge of digitization. It’s this prospect of paradigm shift, and the economic consequences attached to it, that gives the film one of its two major, intertwined narrative and thematic strands; the other is the obsessive, almost pathological tendency of formerly best-selling author Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) to mine his own personal life for material, exercising poetic license while ostensibly writing under the auspices of authenticity. Léonard, who leans into his whinging, beta-male persona instead of examining it, is a repeat offender in this regard, with a string of ex-partners crying foul. One of the suggestions of Assayas’s screenplay is that his tactics exist within a larger cycle of narcissistic recidivism, one with a literary legacy but also very much in line with a social media moment in which entwined ideas of privacy and performativity make not only readers but authors of us all.

In plot terms, very little happens in Non-Fiction, and a good deal of it is in the past tense anyway, as we learn about how Léonard and the other characters—including his suaver but no less self-centered editor Alain (Guillaume Canet)—exist in a kind of nested, incestuous community, wherein betrayals on the page reflect and overshadow those in the bedroom. The different vertices of desire, deception, and adultery intersect in prismatic ways, but the tone is more perfunctory than paranoid, as if everyone takes such moral and ethical contingencies for granted.

It’s strange to watch a film defined simultaneously by stasis—repetitive camera setups and rhetoric—and speed. The film’s talking and cutting have a screwball velocity, but Assayas’s method, as usual, collapses thoughtful contradiction into a style of its own. Still, Non-Fiction mostly lacks the dynamism of its immediate predecessors: not only Clouds of Sils Maria, with its elegant, theatrical structure and witty examination of intergenerational connection and combustion, but also Personal Shopper, which put Stewart front and center as spectacularly (and fetishistically) as Irma Vep did Maggie Cheung (then Assayas’s partner) 20 years earlier. Both of these endlessly watchable meta-movies are charged by the question of how much their stars are “playing themselves”; explicitly so in Irma Vep, in which Cheung literally appears as “Maggie Cheung,” a Hong Kong star lured to Paris to give Vidal’s remake some transnational appeal, slightly less so in Personal Shopper, which focuses not on a movie star but a young woman whose belief that she’s being haunted by the ghost of her brother becomes a metaphor for the kind of media surveillance experienced by a performer of Stewart’s celebrity.

As with Irma Vep’s mashup of filmmaking eras and ethos, Personal Shopper’s juxtaposition of superstitious spiritualism and technologized communication teases out the theme of change while remaining thoroughly pressurized as a combination ghost story–slash–character study. In both films, the heroines experience moments of epiphany that reroute the narratives around them; each one features a sequence in which their star lounges in a luxurious hotel room in borrowed jewelry in a state of passive trance, as reality recalibrates before their—and our—hypnotized eyes. A film like Demonlover, in which Connie Nielsen plays a sleek operative embroiled in a corporate espionage plot disguising even more sinister (and surreal) entanglements, goes even further down the road to mind-fuckery. It’s a bleak masterpiece: Not even the David Cronenberg of Videodrome (which it sort of remakes, with the internet swapped in for basic cable) matches its hallucinatory vision of a culture ensnared—and enslaved—in its own intellectual dark web.

There is nothing so thoroughly discombobulating in Non-Fiction, which suggests a gentrified version of Demonlover in which nobody—including the director—truly takes the plunge into virtual space, and which plays self-reflexive games with its actors in a much cutesier way than Irma Vep or Clouds of Sils Maria. Not only does Binoche appear again as an actress with a distinct resemblance to herself, but she’s also permitted to call herself on it in a throwaway bit of dialogue indebted to similar gags in His Girl Friday and Ocean’s Twelve (both movies that the famously cinephilic director has plausibly seen and enjoyed). The tension between the art house and the multiplex, meanwhile, plays out in a hilarious aside in which one character’s account of getting a blow job while watching Michael Haneke’s Cannes-ratified The White Ribbon is corrected by the revelation that it actually took place at a screening of The Force Awakens—a sly acknowledgment, as in the aforementioned summit between Stewart and Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria, that there are different ways of getting off at the movies.

Such pinot-dry chuckles are the primary pleasure of Non-Fiction, which has been expertly written, directed, and acted and yet lacks a certain filmmaking excitement. Its drab, sedentary aesthetic is purposeful but also self-defeating, especially in comparison with Assayas’s more thrillingly multilayered experiments. The pedigreed dullness might be a joke on its culture-vulture milieu or even the expectations around a strain of highbrow French cinema that Assayas has never quite capitulated to; few filmmakers have so earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to wondering whether they know what they’re doing. And yet the cloistered aspect of Non-Fiction’s setting doesn’t seem like a satirical put-on. “Tweets are modern-day haiku,” jokes one character, expressing this cohort’s use of witticisms as defense mechanisms, and yet the fear of the unruly, unregulated internet hordes—the binary barbarians at the gate—is palpable even through layers of distancing, hyperarticulated irony. The same goes for the leering treatment given to Christa Théret’s sleek, sexually voracious Laure, Alain’s young assistant, a depthless cipher who exists mostly to entice her boss into considering the pleasures (and profits) of a synthetic, Amazonian future. She’s a “digital transition specialist”; all that’s missing in this lazy equation of Young, Beautiful, and Extremely Online is a Dragon Tattoo.

Ultimately, it’s one of its maker’s greatest strengths—his insistence on giving credence to multiple viewpoints—that hampers Non-Fiction the most. Where Assayas is usually able to write effectively in a variety of voices, here his dialogue has the monotonous quality of monologue even when it’s split among different people. The overall impression is of a movie talking animatedly but somewhat boringly to itself, cornering each side of every argument and leaving very little space for our own contemplation. The pile-up of one-liners brings things perilously close to the domain of Woody Allen, whose own quasi-autobiographical gamesmanship may or may not be a specific model for Leonard’s shtick, but such neurotic insularity has never been this director’s strong suit; his characteristic curiosity about the world seems paralyzed.

At his best, as in Irma Vep or Something in the Air, or long passages of Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, Assayas manages magical things: He conjures up complex ideas out of thin air. In Non-Fiction, he generates plenty of atmosphere, but it’s suffocating. This would-be truth-telling movie lives up—or down—to his title: In scene after scene, it cultivates a realism that’s convincing without revealing very much at all.