Tag Archives: B+

NON-FICTION (DOUBLES VIES)

Producer: Charles Gillibert
Director: Olivier Assayas
Writer: Oliier Assayas
Stars: Guillaume Canet, Juliette Binoche, Vincent Macaigne, Nora Hamzawi, Christa Theret, Pascal Greggory, Sigrid Bouaziz, Lionel Dray, Antoine Reinartz, Laurent Poitrenaux, Aurelia Petit and Nicolas Bouchaud
Studio: IFC Films

B+

French writer-director Olivier Assayas revisits the themes of change and loss that have imbued many of his earlier films (most notably the superb “Summer Hours”) in “Non-Fiction,” a talky but engrossing ensemble piece set in the world of contemporary Parisian literati. The film embodies the power of words even as it reflects ruefully on how the means of communication are being transformed in a world radically affected by new technologies.

Being a French film, of course, it’s also about pervasive infidelity.

The film begins with a luncheon meeting between writer Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne), who practices “auto-fiction,” thinly disguised versions of his own experiences, and his long-time publisher Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet). Their conversation is friendly enough, but Alain is subtly trying to convey that he doesn’t intend to publish Spiegel’s latest submission. Too subtly, in fact: as they return to Danielson’s office, he finds that he has to tell an astonished Léonard bluntly they don’t have a deal.

Spiegel wonders, though, whether the decision was really made on artistic grounds, because he’s worried Alain might have discovered that he’s been having an affair with Alain’s wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), a tart-tongued actress who’s losing interest in her role on a long-running cop TV series. When Selena tells her husband that she rather liked Léonard’s manuscript, it might not have helped his cause, especially because their affair is part of the book, perhaps too thinly-camouflaged for comfort.

Léonard, meanwhile, has some suspicion about his own partner Valérie (Nora Hamzawi). She doesn’t show much sympathy over Alain’s rejection of his latest work, matter-of-factly suggesting that he revise it or simply submit it elsewhere. She’s much more concerned with the political campaign she’s involved with; her candidate, a socialist, appears to be much more on her mind than Léonard’s career is, and at a crucial point in the narrative a crisis in the race will send her scurrying to the politician’s side.

And what of Alain? He’s struggling to keep the publishing house from being sold to a mogul who’s likely to ruin its reputation, and as part of his reorganization efforts to prevent the sale happening he has hired Laure (Christa Théret) to take charge of the firm’s digital transition. Of course he’s also sleeping with the ambitious young woman, who, unbeknownst to him, is involved with a female lover—and considering the possibility of securing a more lucrative job elsewhere.

One could justifiably call this a romantic roundelay of the sort depicted in many other Gallic films, but in this case it’s invigorated by lots of talk from smart but flawed individuals about cultural change, much of it delivered at the breakfasts, lunches, dinners and wine parties that appear to consume much of their time. Assayas adds plenty of wit to the conversations, including a couple of jokes that play off Binoche’s star persona.

There’s also piquancy in the script’s emphasis on the characters’ self-absorption: Alain and Selena have a boy of five or six, for example, but he seems to disappear for long stretches, presumably in the company of the nanny we catch a glimpse of in a beach scene; and though Spiegel’s crisis of confidence is seemingly resolved in the final sequence, one wonders whether the glow of the news Valérie brings him, supposedly the answer to his depression, will last very long. (He’ll probably write about it, though.)

“Non-Fiction” is filled with good performances down the line, and benefits from the sense of pacing in Assayas’ direction and Simon Jacquet’s editing, as well as the cannily unobtrusive cinematography of Yorick Le Saux, who invests the film with an air of unaffected naturalness that’s actually carefully contrived.

The result is another perceptive drama from Assayas, ostensibly more straightforward than his more recent films but equally acute in its observations about the shifting, enigmatic nature of human relationships.

ASH IS PUREST WHITE (JIANGHU ER NV)

Producer: Shozo Ichiyama
Director: Jia Zhang-ke
Writer: Jia Zhang-ke
Stars: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng, Casper Liang, Feng Xiaogang, Diao Yinan, Zhang Yibai, Ding Jiali, Zhang Yi and Dong Zijian
Studio: Cohen Media

B+

Like all of Jia Zhang-ke’s films, “Ash Is Purest White” is, at its basis, a tale of change in modern Chinese society, in this case using a sort of low-rent “Godfather” scenario as the plot catalyst. Rest assured, however, that it is no conventional gangland saga: it has the same ruminative, moody tone as the writer-director’s previous work.

In common with “Mountains May Depart,” the film has a tripartite structure. It begins in 2001, when its heroine, Qiao (Jia’s wife Zhao Tao), comes into the headquarters of her boyfriend Guo Bin (Liao Fan), a small-time provincial gang boss who enjoys settling disputes among his associates and the locals while holding court in a mahjong parlor. She’s a hard-bitten type who takes no guff from anybody, and joins the crew in a toast to their brotherhood and its code of conduct (something that the original title alludes to with the word “jianghu”).

But times are changing in the crime world, as in society as a whole. We see the larger reality when Qiao visits her father in their coal-mining hometown, where the industry is dying and the population moving away. Transition in her smaller, more closed world is portrayed when an older mob associate of Bin’s is killed, apparently by a gang that represents a new, less disciplined type of criminality, and then he’s assaulted, first by a pipe-wielding thug and then by a bunch of vicious motorcyclists. The person who saves him from the attackers is Qiao, who uses his illegal gun to fire a couple of warning shots that send the attackers packing.

Then she protects him further by claiming that the gun is hers, earning a five-year prison term by doing so. He doesn’t even visit her while she serves the sentence, and when she’s released, he’s disappeared.

That begins the second section of the film, set in 2006. Qiao travels the Yangtze past the Three Gorges region so prominent in Jia’s earlier “Still Life,” past towns soon to be submerged by the massive reservoir’s rising water, in search of Bin. Old acquaintances tell her that he’s moved on and doesn’t want to see her. Jia provides Qiao with a series of encounters during her odyssey that reveal, with touches of both humor and poignancy, her capacity to take charge. She’s robbed and must use her wiles to survive by conning philanderers and indulging in other minor scams. On a train she meets a blowhard entrepreneur who claims to be spearheading a project to set up tours of UFO-sighting sites but proves to be a fraud; she, on the other hand, experiences such a sighting herself. She uses her wiles to steal a motorcycle when she needs one. And she finally locates Bin, only to find a changed and desolate man.

The third act of “Ash” leaps to 2018, and Qiao and Bin have effected a reconciliation of sorts, but on very different terms than those of two decades earlier. She is now presiding over the mah-jong parlor, while he sits dejectedly in a corner a shadow of his former self, treated without the earlier respect from his colleagues. Yet Qiao, still true to the old code even in a society that has taken a sharp turn, holds to what she considers her responsibility even now. The English title refers to the pure ash produced by the tremendous heat emitted by active volcanoes, which acts as a symbol of the absolute fidelity to the old values Qiao maintains even after enduring two decades of wrenching change in her life—and the society around her.

“Ash is Purest White” is, like Jia’s earlier films, very much a personal reflection on what has been happening to modern China, employing gangster conventions—and sequences involving radical shifts in popular music, dance styles and outdoor entertainment—as an element of that rumination, rather than surrendering to them. It’s technically assured—with classically composed cinematography by Eric Gautier and editing by Mathieu Laclau and Lin Xudong entirely in sync with Jia’s lapidary rhythms.

The linchpin of the film, however, is the stunningly nuanced and vital performance by Zhao, who convincingly charts Qiao’s two-decade journey. She’s ably abetted by Liao, whose sharp features convey strength, but who’s equally effective as the broken shell he becomes in the picture’s latter stages. The supporting cast includes cameos by directors Feng Xiaogang, Diao Yinan, Zhang Yibai and Xu Zheng, which comes across as more a stunt that will appeal to buffs than an artistic necessity.

At nearly two-and-a-half hours with subtitles, this is hardly a film for the megaplex crowd. But it’s an important addition to the canon of one of today’s truly notable filmmakers.