NYFF 2018 review: Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas)

It seems that, along with Godard, Olivier Assayas is one of cinema’s keenest chroniclers reflecting the soulless modern world in the late stages of capitalism. He reflected on the internet porn industry and shady side of desire in Demon Lover, corporate espionage and power politics in Boarding Gate, Hollywood and stardom in Clouds of Sils Maria and the fashion industry in Personal Shopper. Now he takes on the fate of the print media with a biting new comedy, Non-Fiction. Unlike his last two collaborations with Kristen Stewart and an international cast and locations, Non-Fiction takes place mostly in Paris with an ensemble cast of French actors – Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet, Vincent Macaigne and Nora Hamzawi. Although the scale of the film might seem smaller and less glamorous, Assayas’ observations on the publishing industry and the rising popularity of TV are, as usual, spot-on.

Canet plays Alain, a book publisher. He is not too hot about the new manuscript of his longtime client, Léonard (Macaigne), a semi-respected author. Alain used to like Léonard’s books, but the author’s thinly veiled, self-aggrandizing autobiographical works have been getting on his nerves lately. So he decides to pass on the latest. Alain is also dealing with office politics, with physical books transitioning into digital format, and with sales figures where prestige doesn’t necessarily produce profit anymore. And there is a rumor of a large media conglomerate taking over the company he works for.

For Léonard, who is going through a hard time with his live-in girlfriend Valérie (Hamzawi), a sharp-tongued political consultant for a major candidate in the upcoming election, the news of Alain’s refusal to publish his new book (titled Full Stop) is a big blow. Léonard also happens to be having a long-term affair with Alain’s actress wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), who appears (thinly veiled of course) in Full Stop and is deathly afraid of Alain finding out.

Valérie is getting frustrated because her earnest candidate’s message is not getting through to people. In this post-Trump, post-truth era, there’s just too much noise for people to filter out. Léonard tries to console her to no avail, and it doesn’t help when an allegation of sexual harassment turns up in the candidate’s past.

Selena talks about a policier TV series that she has been starring in for four seasons. It’s physical work and kind of cool to be a feminist heroine, but she doesn’t feel any joy doing it anymore. A TV show is something to put on when working stiffs get home after a long day and binge watch and relax, she says. Alain chimes in that it is like those adult coloring books that are money-makers for publishing companies. They are for relaxation, nothing more. Selena complains that the only other job offer she gets is Phaedra on stage, obviously because of her age.

All of these characters are trying very hard to make a mark in their own field. They desperately want to matter in an internet age when people prefer blogs instead of esteemed magazines, and a Twitter rumor can ruin someone’s reputation in an instant.

Non-Fiction is a very wordy, very French film. In cafes, apartments and hotel rooms, they smoke, drink and talk non-stop. Léonard quips that because of Twitter’s narcissistic nature, it’s very French.

Printed literature versus e-books and intellectual property rights versus the internet being the purveyor of democracy are hot topics these days. Do you really prefer that digital media you bought, which eventually disappears from your computer’s digital library, to physical media that can never truly disappear? I feel that Assayas is the only major director who actually verbalizes these issues on screen.

A lot of big words are thrown about and discussed among these urban, cultured professionals – unwitty witticism, auto-fiction, dematerialization, post-truth. The characters embody the antithesis to the anti-intellectual world where everyone is free to spout three-sentence haikus on Twitter without any consequences.

Where it lacks Assayas’ languid visual language, Non-Fiction makes up for it with its sharp, witty dialogue and humor. Macaigne, a comedian with unkempt hair and a portly disposition, appearing in many quirky comedies of late, is becoming a major figure in French cinema. He has worked his way up to having a full nude love scene with Juliette Binoche here.

In this fictional light comedy with its English title Non-Fiction, along with its French title Doubles vies, Assayas once again rightly reflects our society in real time. To top the movie’s meta-ness, Alain relates that he is in negotiation with Juliette Binoche to do an audio book of Full Stop, drawing the biggest laugh from the audience at the film’s press screening.