Roman Polanski’s Based on a True Story, contrary to its title, isn’t: It’s a fiction film about a successful author who avoids her past and an eerily obsessive fan who pushes her to write the “hidden book” her previous work seemed to promise. Of course, Polanski’s film is also transparently about the director himself—as well as about his co-writer, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. And there’s an almost incredible arrogance to that.
Polanski surrogate Delphine (Emmanuelle Seigner) is enjoying great success with her new autobiographical novel but also burned out from the promo tour. Elle (Eva Green)—whose name, as is often commented on in the film, literally translates to “Her”—is a supposed super-fan who ingratiates herself into Delphine’s life as a “good listener” before gradually moving into the author’s flat and taking over her work, deleting slanderous Facebook posts, responding to emails, and even attending a face-to-face gig in her place. Elle also impresses on Delphine the importance of “reality” and tries to dissuade her from writing the fictional book she’s pitched to her publisher.
A better film might commit itself to an antagonism of Delphine’s complacency and self-regard, but this one largely just registers as uncritical and defensive. The best that can be said for it is that its very familiar persona-swap premise is conducted with humor and self-awareness: Delphine’s publisher responds to her pitch by telling her that there have been too many books on the subject before, and Delphine herself wonders at one point whether the book she’s working on has characters she’ll want to spend two years with.
Based on a True Story is a lark, but it’s also a kind of insidious one, as the film treats the attacks on Delphine’s character—and by absolutely intended extension, the filmmaker’s—as embittered #FakeNews and disruptions to a sacrosanct artistic process. Which might be a more palatable notion if the art going on here were up to Polanski’s often high caliber; aside from a handful of surrealistic effects, the filmmaking is largely functional in its shots and staging and extremely stupid with its symbolism (at one point, Delphine opens a popup book to a picture of a literal skeleton in a closet).
A very charitable reading of Based on a True Story might say that the film is designed to be self-negating, an intentionally slight, derivative, and unambitious project intended as a self-deprecating joke. But it’s more likely that Polanski and Assayas have just wasted a couple of game performances from Seigner and especially Green—who convinces as both a consoling friend and a terrifying manipulator—on a curiously clueless drama.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17—28.