Olivier Assaya’s Non-Fiction is a Cinematic Essay About the Digital Onslaught
Few can deny that we are currently passing through a historical epoch in terms of technological evolution. Like the generation that endured the Industrial Revolution, we are faced with new machines and inventions which promise both a leisurely future but the dismantling of modern industries. The world is changing fast for the characters of Non-Fiction as well, even as they keep the flame burning for the art of print publishing. This is the new and playful film by Olivier Assayas, one of France’s great modern directors, who has spent his last few movies pondering questions of identity and placement. Actresses facing middle age, radicals seeking nihilist satisfaction in the heated 1970s, these have been some of Assayas’s recent profiles. A drama that could also function as a cinematic essay, Non-Fiction profiles a small group of people inter-linked via their social circles in Paris. What binds them together is the world of book publishing, and even as their own lives experience small earthquakes, they find themselves consumed by the debate of whether the printed word will even survive another century.
Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) has finished a new manuscript and hopes his publisher, Alain (Guillaume Canet), is happy with the result. But it’s a strange mixture of fiction and autobiography, as Léonard makes clear allusions to real affairs involving living people. Turned off by the material, Alain refuses to publish it. He is himself caught in the ongoing debates over whether publishing houses should switch to all digital content, and whether tweets could make good material for a book. Laure (Christa Théret) is a tech expert trying to advise Alain and convince him that books as we know them are a thing of the past — even literary criticism will soon be extinct. What matters, she tells him, is providing customers with quick-access product. Of course this doesn’t stop Alain and Laure from becoming lovers, despite the fact that he is married to TV actress Selena (Juliette Binoche). But there are no innocent parties here, because Selena is herself carrying on an affair with Léonard, under the nose of his politically active wife Valérie (Nora Hamzawi).
Non-Fiction marks a return to a more intimate cinema for Assayas, who has been exploring character profiles with historical dramas and eloquent fictions. Assayas has always been a director fascinated with our relationship to culture and history. It is no surprise he is himself an essayist and author of several books. As far back as 2002 his films like Demonlover have explored the dance between progress and society, including in the realm of pornography. His boldest work remains 2010’s Carlos, a 5-hour biopic of the 1970s terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Edgar Ramirez played the infamous urban guerrilla as the ultimate nihilist, loyal to no actual revolution other than himself. This was followed in 2013 by Something in the Air, about radical French students experiencing the cultural upheavals of 1968. In his 2014 Clouds of Sils Maria Kristen Stewart played the assistant to a middle-aged movie star (Binoche) as they prepare for the star’s comeback onstage. For his last film, 2016’s Personal Shopper, Assayas again cast Stewart, this time as an actress’s personal shopping agent, obsessed with contacting the spirit of her dead brother. In all these films Assayas used the technique of placing the plot in the background, focusing instead on crafting sharply-imagined personalities. Even Carlos wasn’t so much about the terrorist’s exploits as about what made him tick. Non-Fiction is more of a balance between theme and character. We become comfortable following everyone in this narrative, while listening to the overall, sometimes intense debates about technology and literature. Assayas shoots in a grainy film style that evokes classic French cinema from an earlier time, with scenes that come close to being reminiscent of the days when Godard used the artistry of the medium to comment on contemporary issues.
Much of Non-Fiction is set inside warmly-lit rooms and cafes, the look of classic Paris infiltrated by modern living. Publishing isn’t the only issue being discussed, but also the general impact of digital technology on how we live and interact. Valérie rushes out of an apartment to get to work, unhooking various charging phones and ipads; Léonard is caught by surprise during a book signing by hostile audience members who inform him that his use of real people as characters has ignited a Twitter storm. Alain and Laure share a bed in a small hotel, but she lectures him on the death of print media. As the characters have their trysts, what they are actually doing is becoming walking talking points, but lively and clumsily comic ones. We recognize in Léonard as the stereotype of the nearly-penniless, aloof writer, admitting he would be broke if it wasn’t for Valérie, yet he insists he can only write novels taken directly from real life, which in this era of digital consumption feeds right into tabloid culture. His friends may resent his blurring of fiction and truth, but deep down he knows this will aid sales. Alain embodies countless publishers around the world right now, hoping to preserve the classic culture of literary production while being assaulted by the digital revolution. His affair with Laure is also a clash of wills, of the past and future. She admits one evening that her own father was a novelist, so she has respect for writers, but she is also a child of this digitized age, so she cares little for the future of print. Ironically, Alain himself tries to get his own writers to adapt and concentrate on blogs and social media, but he still can’t fathom a world without hardbacks and paperbacks. Assayas via the script seems to be suggesting that even as digital continues on its ever consuming wave, certain forms of media will find a way to survive. It would have been impossible to imagine in the 1990s that vinyl would suddenly make such a comeback in the 2010s, as a form of cultural nostalgia for some, or a vintage curiosity for the young, yet the records are selling.
This is Assayas’s third collaboration with the great Juliette Binoche after the acclaimed Summer Hours and Clouds of Sils Maria. Lately they’ve been having fun with the idea of the middle-aged actress trying to get by in a strange, ageist world. In Sils Maria, Binoche elegantly played an icon who finds herself cast in a play she made famous decades before, but now in the older role. In Non-Fiction she’s lighter and funnier, playing an artist who takes on a generic TV action role. She gets pulled into the film’s triangle by unknowingly being a muse for Léonard’s novel. The actress who conveyed ache with such elegance in Blue and The English Patient now joins Catherine Deneuve as a reminder that age cannot touch these icons, but it can replace the ache of previous characters with a lively wisdom. Assayas has almost too much fun continuously referencing a chapter where Léonard recalls getting fellatio from Selena during Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but changes the movie to the more artsy The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke for the book. Haneke’s film is a brilliant commentary on the seeds of fascism in post-World War I rural Germany, but including it in the narrative in this fashion is a hilarious rib-nudge at pretension.
Non-Fiction, however, never turns into melodrama, even when Valérie has to deal with a sudden scandal involving her political candidate of a boss. Scenarios are used instead for the kind of intellectual conversation you rarely see anywhere in the movies these days. A wine-fueled chat about Valérie’s job turns into a wider debate about populism and distrustful voters. Léonard’s struggles to get his book published are truly about the role of literature in a time of quick digital consumption, and the ethics of making fiction that’s a little too close to real events. Non-Fiction is a snapshot of Paris in this particular moment, of what its denizens, or the more cognizant ones, are discussing over dinner or arguing about in the cafes.
Yet the heart of it all is the culture of reading and print media in this age. We are told in one scene how now there are automatic book printers at European stores. You simply order a title and it’s printed on the spot, supposedly just as good as a factory-delivered edition. Considering the penny-pinching some houses are now doing with lesser-known titles, I highly doubt the quality of a fast-food edition. But the final, pleasant scenes at a villa near the sea, where the affairs of the story resolve themselves quietly and maturely, have a shot of Selena passing the time by reading a good old-fashioned paperback. Non-Fiction charmingly ponders the future, while celebrating the subversive idea that books are here to stay.