The Souvenir

At first glance, Non-Fiction (which opens this weekend at the Music Box) might appear to be a minor effort from French writer-director Olivier Assayas. The film is dialogue-driven, as opposed to advancing a remarkable visual aesthetic, and the conversations seem to spell out the ideas Assayas wants to communicate. Practically every scene contains some exchange about the nature of mass media in the 21st century, and while these exchanges are eloquent, even provocative, some viewers might find them a little too clear-cut. Assayas’s characters explicitly debate the merits of reading e-books versus traditional print, binge-watching TV shows versus going to the movies, and learning about writers via autobiographical fiction versus news reports of their personal behavior. It’s as though Assayas—who’s explored these themes before in such films as Late August, Early September (1998), Demonlover (2002), and Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)—simply wanted to give expression to his conflicted feelings on postmodern life, storytelling be damned.

Yet Assayas, one of the most important and inventive living filmmakers, has more on his mind than just a My Dinner With Andre-style talkfest. Non-Fiction is not only about the subjects it declares itself to be about; it’s a subtle meditation on what it means to navigate them in a world where the line between public and private self seems increasingly blurred. The principal characters are all duplicitous in some way, and Assayas suggests that their duplicity is simply normal behavior in a society that encourages people to create complex public personas that draw on their private identities without revealing too many ugly truths. The character of Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne) embodies the society to a T. He writes novels that are thinly veiled accounts of his private life, though he insists that his work is fiction, not autobiography. His blithe refusal to discuss his personal life (as opposed to his writing) gets him into hot water not only with the people he writes about, but with readers and interviewers who think they know the truth about him. Despite the thoroughness of Assayas’s dialogue, the characters hardly debate Léonard’s evasive moral position, which is a testament to the subtlety of Non-Fiction. Assayas leaves it up to the audience to debate the film’s most challenging provocation.

Léonard is cheating on his wife, a political advisor named Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), with Selena (Juliette Binoche), the actress wife of his editor, Alain (Guillaume Canet). Alain, in turn, is cheating on Selena with his coworker Laure (Christa Théret). None of the characters feel particularly guilty about being unfaithful, which shows how easily they can separate their public and private selves. (It’s worth noting that the film’s original French title, Doubles Vies, translates to “double lives.”) Yet for all the characters’ self-consciousness—about their actions, their politics, and their position within the zeitgeist—they don’t seem particularly self-aware. That is, they don’t realize the extent to which they reflect attitudes in the culture they claim not to like. This willed blindness is fairly pathetic, but it also makes one care deeply for the characters. Watching Non-Fiction, you root actively for them to use their smarts to see beyond themselves, to accept some sense of responsibility for what they do. Whether the characters evolve remains ambiguous up until the end of the film, another sign of Assayas’s compelling caginess.

Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical drama The Souvenir (which opens this weekend at Century Centre) is cagey in another way that I oughtn’t discuss too directly here. The film contains one of the most shocking revelations in recent movies; about halfway through, Hogg exposes something about the principal characters that forces you to reevaluate nearly everything she’s shown you about them up until then. It’s an effective strategy that’s so much more than a narrative trick. The revelation doesn’t alter the film’s main themes (innocence, coming of age, emotional dependency), but rather deepens them and takes them in a darker direction. It also dovetails beautifully with Hogg’s visual aesthetic, which is built around an exquisite sense of off-screen space. The British writer-director has long cited French filmmaker Robert Bresson as a major influence, and like him, she knows how to play on her viewers’ imaginations through the careful selection of what she does and doesn’t present. The influence came through most powerfully in her first two theatrical features, Unrelated (2007) and Archipelago (2010), in which she had climactic arguments take place off camera while the on-screen action consisted of other characters reacting to them. In The Souvenir, she structures the whole drama in such a fashion, keeping the film’s most important conflict unseen until she can no longer avoid it.

The film takes place in London in the early 1980s. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, the daughter of actress Tilda Swinton, who also appears here) is a film school student in her early 20s working on a social-realist drama for her final project. As in her 2013 feature Exhibition, Hogg realizes the art world in knowing detail, though it essentially exists as the backdrop for an interpersonal story about Julie’s romance with an older man named Anthony (Tom Burke) who works for the Foreign Office. Anthony is fussy, disdainful, and priggish, but he’s also witty and knows a lot about art (the movie takes its title from a Fragonard painting he takes her to admire at a museum); some of the more important conversations Hogg dramatizes concern the properties of cinema and other artistic media. Julie quickly becomes in thrall to Anthony, not just drinking in his assessments of art, but following him to every social event he wishes to attend. The affair appears somewhat one-sided, with Julie seeming Anthony’s protégé as much as his lover. An ever-understated dramatist, Hogg doesn’t make this aspect of the relationship the film’s focal point; she makes clear how Julie’s curiosity and determination as a budding filmmaker carries over to her private life. Still, something eerie floats just beneath the surface of The Souvenir, hinting at the grand revelation to come.

In all her films, Hogg has demonstrated herself to be a keen observer of the unspoken bonds that tie people together. The bonds in The Souvenir are harder to suss out than in her previous work, forcing viewers to study subtle behavioral clues for hints as to what keeps Julie and Anthony involved with each other. Hogg guides one’s attention not only through what she chooses to present, but through her manipulation of what appears in the frame. This is the first theatrical feature that Hogg has shot on celluloid, and she makes brilliant use of shallow focus to keep you keyed in to specific details. Generally avoiding wide shots, Hogg renders the central relationship as something of a prison—only in the movie’s devastating second half do you come to understand what the bars are made of.   v