Non-Fiction (2019)

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Direction: Olivier Assayas
Country: France

French auteur Olivier Assayas, an important figure in the European contemporary cinema since the ‘90s, tells a conversational modern-day tale, slightly inspired by Eric Rohmer's The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque (1993) and containing some pertinent observations about hypocrisy in the art world - the emphasis is on literature and cinema - and the effects of the ever-evolving technology. Non-Fiction stars a talented ensemble cast with Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet, Vincent Macaigne, and Nora Hamzawi embarking on extensive dialogues that oscillate between well-rounded and routine.

Canet’s Alain Danielson is an ambitious Parisian publisher totally immersed in the digital development of literature. His wife, Selena (Binoche), is a successful TV actress who complains about being a hostage of her profession. While the husband is sexually involved with Laure (Christa Théret), his freewheeling young assistant, the wife maintains a long-standing affair with the struggling writer Leonard Spiegel (Macaigne), who prefers chaos to authority and stutters every time a journalist makes him uncomfortable questions about his books.

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The latter almost never agrees with his busy, often insensible wife, Valerie (Hamzawi), but they have fun together, nurturing their relationship with enthusiastic discussions about art, politics, and Leonard’s real-life-inspired writings. Valerie works for David, a left-wing political candidate, whose transparency becomes blurred after a sex scandal. In order to spice things up, Alain refuses to publish Leonard’s new work, considering it repetitive and boring.

Loaded with multiple discussions and personal opinions, the film sometimes lacks some sort of empathic envelope, playing the extramarital affairs as enhancers for tension. However, it finishes much better than it starts, gradually creating a lived-in sense of roominess to expose the world of the characters.

Shot in 16 mm, this Assayas’ satisfying yet unremarkable effort is not as strong as The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) or Personal Shopper (2016), but becomes exquisitely affecting in its final third. Non-Fiction’s main strength is perhaps the non-judgmental posture together with the acceptance of life, with all its complex phases, as it is. Yet, I felt this was the type of story that Truffaut would make look charmingly witty, whereas Chabrol would turn into a pseudo-thriller.

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Personal Shopper (2016)

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Directed by Olivier Assayas
Country: France / Germany

Two years after the highly esteemed drama “Clouds of Sils Maria”, French writer/director Olivier Assayas tackles a psychological drama/thriller bolstered by crime and spiritualism.

Kristen Stewart is Maureen Cartwright, an American personal shopper based in Paris where she’s assisting Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), a high profile and super-busy celebrity. Her job, a dream for many of the common mortals, consists in traveling to European cities and pick up fancy clothes and jewelry that will be worn by her client at some party or event and then returned to the store.

Even with this painless, well-paid job that provides her a good quality of life, Maureen is not at peace with herself since her twin brother Louis has died from a heart malfunction. In truth, Maureen also suffers from the same medical condition and needs a routine examination every six months. She’s advised to avoid extreme emotions and physical strains.
This is not what bothers her, though, but the fact she can’t connect with the spirit of Louis, who was a very sensitive medium and should be manifesting his presence somehow by that time, as they had promised each other.

Fearless and determined, the disheartened Maureen keeps going back to the house where Louis died to spend the night and trying to establish contact. The house, placed in a remote location in the woods, is now abandoned, and strange happenings start to occur. Is it really Louis or other intrusive forces?
To increase her anxiety, she starts getting mysterious texts on her phone from an unknown sender who seems to know all her moves.
This particular aspect of the story is easily guessable and didn’t really pique my curiosity. A harrowing crime, plus the cat-and-mouse play that results from it, is what will turn it exciting.

The film was never creepy during the ghostly appearances, but Assayas’ vision caught my attention from start to finish, especially through the emotional struggles of this seductive woman who also allows herself to be seduced by the forbidden. He had a perfect ally in Stewart, who gave an out-of-this-world performance, shaping a character that needs to find how to deal with grief and, at the same time, accept what she can’t control. 
Even if not as brilliant as “Clouds of Sils Maria”, “Personal Shopper” is a worthy tale about letting things go in life, in order to live it freely.