Olivier Assayas • Director of Non-Fiction
“At one point, I realised I was making a comedy”
by Marta Bałaga
- Cineuropa met up with French director Olivier Assayas to discuss Non-Fiction, his new feature with Guillaume Canet and Juliette Binoche
In Non-Fiction [+see also:
interview: Olivier Assayas
film profile], Oliver Assayas’ first feature since 2016’s Personal Shopper [+see also:
interview: Artemio Benki
interview: Olivier Assayas
film profile], struggling writer Léonard draws on his own experiences (and numerous affairs) in his “worst-selling” novels, while everybody around him – including his long-time publisher, married to a TV actress – tries to face a new media landscape, figuring out how it affects their lives. The movie is screening in competition at the Venice Film Festival.
Cineuropa: In Non-Fiction, your characters keep debating ongoing technological advances. Do you find them threatening as well?
Olivier Assayas: I have shifting opinions. I like to think in a dialectical way – I don’t think there is one kind of truth. But what scares me the most is that the internet has become a vector for fantasies and lies, and all of a sudden, there is no solidity in facts, especially in the USA. This film shows how we adapt to change. The world is constantly changing, but for us, the engine of change is the digital revolution. I don’t have any fixed opinions about technology. It’s just something that’s happening, and you can’t judge or oppose it – it’s a fact, and it’s transforming the world and the way we are communicating. So in that sense, I am just acknowledging it in order to make sense of it, as we all do.
Why did you decide to focus on the publishing world and not, say, cinema?
I thought that was where these issues hit the hardest. At one point, Guillame Canet’s character says: “Why not just go fully digital?” He has a point, but the reality is that people actually like books. A while ago, everybody was convinced that e-books would be the future, and it didn’t turn out like this at all. The original title of the film was actually E-book, but I dropped it because I thought it was a bit too technical and too cold.
In terms of cinema, the biggest part of the digital revolution has already happened. The medium changed in several major ways during the 1980s and 1990s, when there were still things you couldn’t represent, simply because they were too expensive. Now, these boundaries don’t exist any more. The very core of the medium has changed, and so has the way we consume films. But the reason why I have devoted my life to cinema is because I love the big screen. I still feel its magic, even when I go to a multiplex to watch some bullshit American blockbuster. Netflix and others like it are operating in the space of ambiguity; they are hiring renowned directors to use their names and show this is the kind of content they can provide. But I don’t care – I still want to see Alfonso Cuarón’s new film on the big screen.
As you pointed out, your film is about change. But in many ways, it feels rather traditional – there are no text messages flashing up on the screen.
Been there, done that [laughs]! I wanted to make a movie about ideas – that’s where I started, really. But the thing with cinema is that sometimes you think you are making a point, but your film arrives about three years too late. I wanted to take part in the current conversation, and I wanted the viewer to be a part of it. These characters express their own opinions, which are then contradicted by other people, within the same conversation! We’re not living at a time when those things have stabilised; they are still being questioned.
The writer played by Vincent Macaigne keeps referring to his own life and relationships – he just can’t help it. But many of your films are connected to your own experiences as well.
I suppose I am a little more ethical than the writer in the film [laughs]. But in terms of my writing, I function in ways that are possibly similar to his. I liked the idea of a movie that would reflect how each of these characters has a real life, and then another fictional one as a character in his books. It’s this idea of fiction being the mirror of reality. When you write a scene or a line of dialogue, it’s because you have experienced these emotions. The situation or the character might have been transformed beyond recognition, but you always remember where it came from.
Did you always intend to laugh at their confusion? Like when Léonard, instead of discussing his new novel, has to address Twitter controversies he didn’t even know about.
I am a great admirer of Éric Rohmer, and the light that guided me was his movie The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque, a comedy that dealt with some of the debates going on within French society at the time. When I was writing Non-Fiction, it was the only thing that gave me the notion that maybe I was heading in the right direction. I think at one point, I realised I was making a comedy. I started making a movie about ideas and gradually realised that those ideas make sense only when it’s humorous. I thought that Irma Vep was a comedy, too, but this one is definitely a step further. My approach was that I wanted to enjoy myself while writing. I didn’t want to think in terms of the structure or how I should describe certain things. There is not a single word in the movie that I didn’t have fun writing.
After the premiere, you said that your characters surprised you. Why?
These are postmodern couples. I don’t judge them – these things just happen. We are becoming so moral, and I wanted to make a movie that would also be a bit amoral. I identify with all of them, including the idiots. There is not a single character that I can’t relate to. I understand what they are saying and why, and in a way, they all have a point. Non-Fiction is very French in the sense that in France you can still get away with making these kinds of films. There is so much pressure to make series nowadays – that’s where the core of the business is. But how can you find a space that’s specifically cinema and still make it seem relevant? Every movie I make is a shot at trying to answer this question.
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