Non-Fiction: unfussy, briskly shot auto-fiction

Director Olivier Assayas explores the prospects of the printed word in the digital age.

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Following two haunting collaborations with Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper), the director Olivier Assayas moves on to a different sort of twilight: the prospects of the printed word in the digital age. Non-Fiction hits the ground running – or rather talking – with the writer Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), cuddly, bearded and bear-like, and his publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet), silver-cropped and shrewd, discussing a new political novel that has got tongues wagging and tweets flying. Léonard despises Twitter whereas Alain likens it in its exchange of witticisms to the ancien régime, a comparison that prompts his friend to rail against online narcissism. As Alain in turn lashes out (“Your radicalism is no less narcissistic!”), it becomes apparent that these topics are pretexts for a deeper sort of conversation that these people can’t quite bring themselves to have. Books are only the cover story.

Over lunch in a crowded restaurant (a nice detail: the publisher is paying, so the writer orders more than he otherwise would), Alain teases Léonard, branding one of his books a “worst-seller” and implying that his latest manuscript, a thinly veiled account of his romantic imbroglios, is a case of same old, same old. Comfort for Léonard is in short supply. His wife, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi, a dead ringer for a young Allison Janney), is amusingly blunt with him, but then she’s busy with a real job that doesn’t involve recycling one’s diaries and calling it auto-fiction: she’s dealing with a strike in her capacity as consultant to a left-wing politician. Nor do Léonard’s bookshop events provide any succour. He sits glumly by while the interviewer refers to his “demanding and still little-known oeuvre” and the audience alerts him to online controversies about his work of which he was previously unaware (“It’s quite vicious – you’re probably better off”). He’s an open book in danger of becoming a remaindered one.

He has one admirer at least: Alain’s wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche), an actor dissatisfied with her role on a hit TV cop show, thinks her husband should reconsider and publish his latest book. But then she and Léonard are having an affair, so she has skin in the game. The question of whether Alain knows about this, or if his perpetual irritation at Léonard is caused merely by the writer’s puritanical refusal to change and adapt, gives a special kick to any discussions of the novel. When Alain asks Selena if she feels the female character is being objectified in the sex scenes, he seems not to realise that the woman in question is her, though Canet’s performance is just guarded enough that the possibility can’t be ruled out completely.

Alain isn’t blameless. Laure (Christa Théret), appointed by his publishing house to oversee “digital transition”, has all sorts of bad news: she tells him that texting is a modern form of literature, and warns that the role of the critic as trendsetter has weakened. She explains that writing in the online age is different: you have to use keywords to optimise the indexing done by robots. Publishing is going to change. “But we can choose the change, not suffer it.” Rather than shooting the messenger, Alain sleeps with her instead.

There’s a running joke in the film about people mistaking Selena’s TV character for a cop, so that she has to point out primly that she’s a “crisis management expert”. That description fits the other women in the film, from Laure managing the upheavals in publishing, to Valérie handling the strike (“A picture with the strikers looks good,” she advises her boss, valuing public perception above truth), and even Léonard’s publicist, who massages reality by telling him after a disastrous radio interview that “not many people listened to it”. The men are rather more adrift, buffeted by the latest developments – whether it’s e-readers or adult colouring books – and Canet’s narrow-eyed smirk comes to seem less knowing as the film goes on.

The picture is plain, unfussy and briskly shot – Assayas has described it as “explicitly non-visual” – as well as peppered with its own instances of auto-fiction, the majority pertaining to overlaps between Binoche and her character. The cinematographer Yorick Le Saux has shot it mostly on 16mm, and if that isn’t quite as sharply ironic a meeting of form and content as the recent, groundbreaking Bait, a tale of the imperilled Cornish fishing industry made using obsolete technology, there is still something satisfying about a movie that flies the analogue flag while its characters fret about robot overlords and entire novels comprised of tweets.

If a bot were to pluck keywords from a synopsis of the film – “dinner parties,” “philosophical discussions”, “extramarital affairs” – the result might sound like a computer’s idea of stereotypical French cinema. But while Non-Fiction is packed to the brim with slogans (“Information doesn’t exist any more”) and buzz-words (“post-truth”), Assayas’s innate interest in character prevents it from being dry or dusty. Ideas don’t sit on the surface of the movie: they percolate through these personalities like Tennessee whiskey filtered through charcoal chips. 

Non-Fiction (15)
dir: Olivier Assayas

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 16 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war