Film Review: Non-Fiction

Olivier Assayas’ Latest French Dramedy Is More Interested In Conversation Than Sex

Devin D. O'Leary
6 min read
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Not that French filmmaker Olivier Assayas—once seen as a bad boy auteur thanks to edgy art films such as Cold Water, Irma Vep and Demonlover—has ever been a juvenile-minded artist. His films have always been thoughtful, well-developed and deeply cognizant of artistic history. Nonetheless, his work has grown more mature over the decades, embracing less of the youthful radical and more of the middle-aged sophist. Following close on the heels of the well-regarded Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, Assayas’ latest film, Non-Fiction, is as literate as his earlier work—but has a wit and a well-earned wisdom befitting an artist no longer burdened by the energy of youth.

The film, set in the world of modern-day publishing, comes across as quite personal and deeply felt. It centers on two men and their significant others. First up is Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne,
The Innocents), a longtime writer who is seeing his popularity wane with age. “Writing makes people hysterical,” posits Léonard. “The less they read, the more wary they are of writing.” That is, at once, a cogent summation of the current state of the literary world and a cheap excuse as to why he’s no longer the hot literary commodity he once was.

Léonard’s literary editor Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet from
Tell No One), for one, is growing tired of his client’s schtick. Léonard was once a literary sensation, publishing scandalous, intellectual roman à clefs. “All fiction is autobiographical,” he philosophizes—which is his way of justifying the fact that all of his writing is made up of thinly disguised true stories of friends and lovers with the names slightly changed to protect the guilty. But he’s already milked his love life for all it’s worth. Balding, slightly overweight and saddled with an unruly beard, Léonard looks like a man whose been sleeping on the couch for weeks. He’s not exactly the literary Romeo he was a decade or two ago. As the publishing industry goes through seismic changes around them, Alain finds himself forced to reject Léonard’s latest, been-there-done-that novel. It’s time to move on.

Back at home Alain reunites with his wife Selena (French fave Juliette Binoche), an actress on a long-running TV cop show. At a dinner party, the couple discuss the state of modern media with their well-educated friends. It’s an extension of the conversation Alain had with Léonard earlier. Does anyone read anymore? Actually there’s more reading and writing than ever, thanks to the internet. But do blogs actually count as writing? Does surfing the web count as reading? Alain, far more progressive than his old pal Léonard, is now the one behind the times. He’s the fuddy-duddy arguing for the preservation of printed material. Later on, he meets up with his company’s “head of digital transition” Laure (Christa Théret). She pushes for 21st century solutions to the industry’s woes—publishing a book of text messages, for example. But that’s a bridge too far for Alain.

Back in Léonard’s world, cut free from his longtime publisher, the egotistical author finds himself at odds with his vibrant partner Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), a political consultant more interested in an upcoming election than in tending to her man’s bruised ego. Fortunately, he’s still got a place to turn for solace. Seems that Léonard and Alain’s connection is more than business-minded. Léonard has been sleeping with Alain’s wife for six years now. Alain has yet to notice, distracted as he is sleeping with Laure—the woman who’s trying to push him out of a job with her digital transition.

Though the characters are all tangled up in what looks like a standard French sex farce, Assayas is far more interested in the life of the mind than that of the body. Most of his film is eaten up by probingly intellectual conversations—in bars, in offices, in apartments, in bookstores. Everyone wrestles with the future of the printed word. Is it living on borrowed time? Is there any measurable difference between a first edition hardback book and a digital facsimile on Kindle? Are libraries doomed to extinction? It’s a heavy set of questions that weigh on the minds of these characters. And its not much of a leap to see these quandaries coming straight from Assayas’ mind to their mouths. Surely the film industry isn’t far behind the publishing world in terms of massive changes?

But Assayas isn’t arguing any particular point of view here. He gives equal merit to Léonard’s analog, “stick by your guns” argument as to Laure’s digital, “burn it all down” stance. All these characters are right and wrong, clever or misguided, impassioned but specious, at various times. Stuck in the middle (and serving as the filmmaker’s intellectual stand-in, we’ll assume) is poor Alain, who wants his business to retain its most sacred traditions while (cautiously, incrementally) accepting the inevitable technological evolution. This isn’t a narrative about answers, it’s a story about questions.

While a lot of this reads like the notes for a college lecture on the future of communication and media, the film grows—over the course of its runtime—into a lighter and more charming character piece. (A running gag concerning Michael Haneke’s film
The White Ribbon deftly blends the intellectual and the naughty.) Not every viewer will stay tuned in through this film’s talky back-and-forth. (Is Assayas a cultural snob? Undoubtedly. But he’s at least sincere.) Those looking for smart, adult conversation (with a wink and a nod toward European sexual mores), however, will find themselves well served by the fiction of Non-Fiction.
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