From now through October, Film Misery will be covering the 56th New York Film Festival with regular dispatches on the films screened there.
If it not already self-evident from the rest of his career, a brief scene in Non-Fiction (★★★) makes abundantly clear that we do not need Olivier Assayas’ take on lesbians. Homo-erotic vibes trade in Clouds of Sils Maria and Irma Vep, but they feel shallow and evasive, like it’s something scandalous or lesser. The sentiment returns in his latest, when break-up sex between two women already feels like empty kink. Laure (Christa Theret), a transition specialist for businesses adjusting to the social media era, already has been primarily defined by her relation to a (more prevalent) man, so her desire feels less than genuine The whole scene feels like a senseless, superficial distraction.
Of course, Assayas is making a film about such distractions of the internet age, and as much as it can be an inane delight to watch his mostly hetero characters bumble through affairs, it all reads inevitably as flat. This is a film where people have long philosophical conversations on the recent intangibility of the arts, politics and relationships themselves in the adjustment to the current social climate. Kindles & audiobooks render print novels unnecessary. Politicians only matter for their reputations, not their positive efforts. It feels like Assayas has been building up his confusion about how much the culture has changed recently, and now that he’s ready to chime in, the points he makes feel frankly redundant and geriatric.
There is a kind of awkward delight to be found in Non-Fiction – its French title translates to Double Lives – mostly when it comes to the flurry of infidelities between two couples. Detached & superficial publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet) is married to actress Selena (Juliette Binoche), but cheating on her with aforementioned colleague Laure. Selena is cheating on Alain with dopey dirtbag novelist Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), who has a reputation for adapting his affairs without the women’s permission. Leonard is married to political assistant Valerie (Nora Hamzawi), and Valerie… is genuinely just a good person? Gotta be at least one to even things out, I suppose.
Everyone suspects, or even expects, the others are cheating, and that’s just as much of a status quo they’re adjusting to as the age of inter-connectivity. It’s often hysterically funny in a broad way, but mostly from the giddy joy of seeing Assayas characters grapple with popular culture. When one muses that a theater blow-job in harrowing holocaust film The White Ribbon is “more chic” than one in a massive blockbuster, it’s a viciously effective name-drop that keeps on delivering. It’s nothing, though, compared to an all-time meta self-reference that closes the film. It gets so ridiculous that you half-expect Olivier Assayas to show up onscreen so the characters can mock his often superficial outlook. A shame Assayas will endlessly needle his shallow dudes, but stops short of himself.
It’s not hard to follow the theme of men never being called to account for their toxic behavior. Cinema’s needlessly bloated with them. By the end of Long Day’s Journey Into Night (★★★), it’s also filled with one too many noir-tinged studies of lonely gangsters climaxing with a lengthy, roving long-take. Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan’s gotten a lot of publicity out of the 70 minute denouement of his latest film, but not enough criticism for his latest’s redundancy. Made three years after his debut, Kaili Blues, it feels like Gan views that film as a warm-up for this, a longer, more lurid voyage into the dreamlike resonance of time and memory. That film was a vivid surprise, daunting us with an inventive formal vision. His form still astonishes, but there’s hardly anything new to send this airborne.
The structure is roughly identical to Kaili Blues. A first act is told in scattered images, monologues and memories, loosely detailing the protagonist’s regretful romantic and criminal history. Then a second act trades jumbled impressionism for a roving tracking shot meant to startlingly encapsulate the lead’s spiritual journey. The title hits smack in the middle, which can make that first act feel like it’s not actually the film, but a precursor to it. For Kaili Blues, the balance between acts was organic and disarming, carefully revealing elements of tragedy & displacement. In Long Day’s Journey, everything still works, but feels slightly less substantially.
Foregrounding the lost romance makes this a more lurid noir, enticing us with images that bridge the cold present with faded memory. Luo Hongwu (Huang Je) is following breadcrumbs to find his lost love Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), a mysterious woman owned by a jealous gangster. His search brings him to others drawn into her path, all chewed up & spit out. Through it all, Gan maintains the feeling that the present could easily turn abruptly to the past. When a clock is replaced with a photograph, it feels like a very literal replacement of time with memory, as though the truth of how time changes us doesn’t matter.
When we transition into the second half, the restrictions of reality slip even further, with Hongwu trapped in a labyrinth, encountering people who look like faces from his past, but aren’t. This long-take stretch feels like an on-the-nose translation of the end of Twin Peaks, where the man’s attempts to save someone long gone leave him moored in his contorted memories. It’s never as bold or bleak as Peaks, always feeling somewhat expected. How can it help it, when so many supernatural elements have been overtly set-up? Gan’s symbols never surprise, yet he can’t help but let them go. If Kaili Blues was skilled for how much it withheld, Long Day’s Journey Into Night shows us entirely too much.
After the on-the-nose flourishes of the Bi Gan, Burning (★★★1/2) is both a relief and a more viciously anxiety-provoking film. The most on-the-nose gesture comes early on, when he subjects us to a newscast on the “success” of Donald Trump. If you’re going to invoke this nightmare illustration, you better have a damn good justification for it. Lee Chang-dong does, but that only sinks in over marinating in his film’s still, coldly modernist atmosphere for some time. Lee’s style is often built on cool, naturalistic tones that slowly curdle when the cynical, heart-wrenching material reveals itself. Burning is no different, slowly immersing us into the cruel, sinister present.
Focusing on Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an emotionally muted aspiring writer – though he’d never proclaim himself such – taking care of his family’s farm while his abusive father is imprisoned for assault. Pulling him suddenly out of his own head is Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a friend from childhood also living her own obscure existence. Jong-su’s a socially inept boy who met a similarly awkward girl, so inevitably he’s head-over-heels. When she asks him to take care of her cat while she travels to Africa, he accepts, if only to boyishly masturbate in her room. He never suspects that she’d return with an enigmatic new boyfriend.
From the moment we meet Ben (Steven Yeun), there’s something pretty plainly sinister about him. Every thing he says is morally reprehensible, yet charismatically so. When asked what he does for work, he playfully answer “I play.” When Jong-su tells him about North Korean announcements he can hear from his farm, Ben replies “How fun.” Jong-su compares him naively to The Great Gatsby, but there’s nothing romantic about Ben sweeping Hae-mi up in his life. It reaches a peak at Jong-su’s farm, when a jazzy drunken dance and a queasy conversation about burning greenhouses ostensibly results in Jong-su and Hae-mi falling out.
Ostensibly is the only word that feels apt here because Burning is full of mortifying inferences & implications based less on evidence than absence. When Hae-mi disappears under bizarre circumstances, the dynamic between Jong-su and Ben takes the foreground and a quietly insidious mind-game ensues between the two. The specter of what happened to Hae-mi persists, but even when evidence overwhelmingly points in an obvious direction, an unsettling doubt still creeps in. Even the target of Ben’s self-indulgent games feels questionable, as the intimacy he shares with Jong-su feels more sincere than either’s with Hae-mi. Obsession inevitably overtakes compassion, and Burning remains an ambiguous erotic triangle between two isolated individuals & a deliciously enigmatic psycho played to shallow perfection by Yeun.