In the eyes of editor and publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet), one of the men in charge of the prestige publishing house Verthuil Editions, books are in danger of becoming obsolete—or at least dematerial. The same can be said (or not) of art and information more broadly, as he, his actress wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), a schlubby Rothian writer Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), Leonard’s politics PR wife Valerie (Nora Hamzawi) and Verthuil’s new Head of Digital Transition Laure (Christa Théret) spend Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction mostly arguing about the democratization of art, digitalization of literature, blogs, Twitter, “the net,” if fiction is really autobiography and so on. Somewhere in these talky, sometimes spritely exchanges is a film about people’s anxiety about time, about their legacies and identities, about people having affairs and, I suppose, about what authenticity really is.
However intermittently funny Assayas’s newest film may be, Non-Fiction seems strikingly bidimensional; Assayas invites debate and argumentation, spending much of the film debating the merits of digitization and commerce, and how that might shape the future of publishing. But the film often reads like the Twitter thread of a recent college grad who’s leafed through Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, or an ambitious, unedited think piece about new modalities. The arguments themselves, regardless of where a character falls, seem strikingly shallow, rarely ever accounting for class, accessibility, region or race. Assayas has Alain (who, at the beginning of the film, appears to be open-minded about form, and then backtracks by the second scene) and Laure argue about the validity of publishing emails, texts and tweets as literature. Even pre- and post-coitus, the affair he has with her is bookended by these conversations about the future of negotiating information, fact and, more broadly, drama.
It’s all a shame. The arguments feel half-formed, even considering the insular world of the characters—bourgeois French people—too often revealing that they are less the individual perspective of a given character and imore just generalized talking points without specificity or point of view. Which is unfortunate, because buried beneath these exposition-sinking conversations are somewhat compelling characters—kind of. Assayas fleshes out these people when they’re not talking about the death of books or how Twitter is ruining everything. Selena questions what her career could be like if she weren’t playing a cop…er, a crisis management expert, on a successful television series, and how that implicitly could impact her relationships. Is Alain’s job, and Leonard’s writing, less legitimate if the path forged is into a digital realm? Leonard struggles to write anything that’s not pilfered from his personal relationships and affairs and might have to face some accountability for that. Alain’s company isn’t meeting the expectations of its investors, placing its future in question. Everyone is sleeping with one another, perhaps using these dalliances as momentary escapes from the pressures of their “real lives,” professional and personal. Selena’s affair with Leonard, and Alain’s with Laure, exist out of time, where permanency doesn’t matter and the tactility of each other’s bodies is enough. (Assayas smash cuts from one character talking about a book going to paperback to a shot of someone’s back while in bed with a lover.)
Many of these arguments are the stuff of, like, 2014; David Mitchell published a short story on Twitter in 2014, @Horse_ebooks was one of Twitter’s most succesful early experiments as an artistic medium, author/filmmaker Dennis Cooper has worked on a couple of books using only gifs and, though the microblogging novel and Twitterature are in their infancy, telling a story via texts, tweets and posts has long been added extensions of the epistolary novel. Who is Assayas—or his characters, for that matter—supposed to be talking to? Is Non-Fiction, then, only meant for middle aged people still scared of those platforms and not, as is quipped in the film, kids born using computers? Would it be hyperbolic to say that the film is an old man yelling at iCloud? If the arguments, even at their most abstract, weren’t so facile, it would be easier to be more generous. At least if the debate felt a little human.
But these characters are talking figureheads, and Assayas, whose perspective is somewhat in favor of heading into the future digitally with a handful of caveats, does more telling than he does showing. A scene in which Valerie unplugs four devices (for work and personal) from their chargers speaks more to what kind of culture we live in with regards to class, access, consumption and mode than most of the talky scenes. A confrontation between Leonard and Valerie about his infidelity is rooted in more emotional intelligence and insight than ranting endlessly about auto-fiction.
Non-Fiction presents itself as spiritual successors to Irma Vep (1996) and Personal Shopper (2016). The former is a masterclass in examining mutating bodies and the tangibility of film as art form, and the latter is a bad ghost story ostensibly about digital life and death and grief, with lots of shots of Kristen Stewart texting, only redeemed by its sections centered around Stewart’s experimentation with dress up and couture and identity. It appears Assayas has traded the exploration of his philosophical questions through form, action and/or narrative, as in Irma Vep and 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria (also about double lives and legacies, as well as performance), for just, like, talking at the audience via half-formed conversations that do little to explore those notions meaningfully. Effectively, the film feels dishonest and, in spite of surprisingly dynamic camera work, intellectually lazy. Ironically, there is enjoyment in watching Binoche and Hamzawi, whose character is rightfully unsympathetic to her schmuck of a cheating husband. Non-Fiction is at least no more clever than Unfriended: Dark Web.
The film is at its best when its dinner party conversations mostly come to a halt and Assayas infers actual material consequences for his characters’ actions. These are frequently connected to the auto-fiction concept, which Assayas is strongest at communicating sans didacticism. The film reminds a little, too, of the David Sedaris essay “Repeat After Me” (collected in Dress Your Family in Courduroy and Denim), in which the quasi-autobiographical essayist and humorist must reconcile not only with the growing reality of a film adaptation of his work but, essentially, a film adaptation of his life. He considers how plainly, how reflexively he writes about his own family and friends and how that’s shaped his relationship with them. He faces up to what might happen should the somewhat fictional, somewhat true versions of his family be in film, and what the consequences would be regarding his actual family. In the end, he, with humility and candor and sensitivity, asks for forgiveness. Which is more than Non-Fiction can be bothered to say.
Director: Olivier Assayas
Writer: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet, Vincent Macaigne, Nora Hamzawi
Release Date: Screened at the 2018 New York Film Festival