Written and directed by: Olivier Assayas
Olivier Assay’s new film has two seemingly distinct titles in English and French. While perhaps there’s wordplay in the French title that I’m missing, my preference is for the more poetic English moniker of Non-Fiction. The English title veils the film with an appropriate degree of mystery. And the fact that the film’s rating is far lower on AlloCiné than on Rotten Tomatoes makes me think I may be on to something.
When Non-Fiction opens it feels far from mysterious. We’re introduced to a publisher named Alain (Guillaume Canet) and an author named Léonard (Vincent Macaigne). Alain and Léonard debate the future of publishing and reading, with Alain defending tweets as a form of artistic expression, and Léonard arguing that the downfall of the long-form, literary text is a greater negative. Needless to say, for fans of physical media (myself here at Take Me to the VIDEO STORE, included), at times this discussion feels distressing. The debate is not a solitary scene either. As we are introduced to other characters including Alain’s TV-star wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), Laure, his publishing house’s young head of digitization (Christa Théret), and digitization advocate Blaise (Antoine Reinartz) the debate goes on and on. Viewers are given the impression that Non-Fiction is a film from the broad, but still niche tradition that includes Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, My Dinner with Andre and Twelve Angry Men of films that primarily depict the transmission of spoken ideas. But as the film’s French title gives away (perhaps too soon), Non-Fiction does not end up being such a work.
The film’s first vignette ends with Léonard asking Alain when his book will be published. Alain responds that he doesn’t want to publish the book, a point he thought he’d made plain in the midst of his and Léonard’s philosophical discussion. This interaction sets up a recurring idea in Non-Fiction. The film’s characters are well read, articulate people always primed to have important discussions, yet their discussion and their ideas seem to have relatively little to do with the dramas in their life which are far more ordinary. Léonard’s discussion with Alain may have been engaging, but its significance is dealt a real blow when we are shown that the material conclusion of the interaction was Léonard’s book getting rejected: a fact far more upsetting for him, than any ideological argument could be.
This point is also explored through Léonard’s wife Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) who works as an advisor for a left-wing political candidate. While somewhat secondary to the film’s other plot arcs, Valérie ’s struggle is shaped by the problem of presenting her candidate as a sincere idealist. The public, she believes, will think her candidate is running for office out of vanity and not idealism. This perception of politicians is a common one, bordering on cliché. We live in a society that, on the on hand valorizes ideas and debates, but on the other hand, encourages us to be cynical of people’s depth and motivation. Non-Fiction is not cynical about human idealism per se, as the two central couples are portrayed as three-dimensional, feeling people (Laure the digitalization coordinator, arguably, is not). But while the film does not deny the importance of its characters’ ideas it still presents those ideas as powerless when compared to the other social forces that influence those characters’ behaviors.
A related point made by the film is that ideas require assumptions about other human beings, assumptions we’re horribly bad at making. In the case of Alain this idea is conveyed through his early pronouncements about the future of his industry. These pronouncements come across as logical and foolproof, but Alain’s belief in them only declines as the film precedes. Speaking confidently does not mean you have a grasp on the state of any one human, let alone the human race. For Léonard, meanwhile, we’re shown how his staying off the internet leaves him oblivious to major parts of public discourse. And in Selena’s case, we see how she manages to exist anonymously despite being the subject of a supposedly highly transparent text. Léonard is oblivious tothe world and the world is oblivious to Selena.
When it’s a movie about the discussion of ideas, Non-Fiction feels like it’s also a film about the future. But what is the future? Is it the result of an inevitable historical march towards profit? What about an inevitable march towards democracy? Or convenience? Non-Fiction shows that the future is not some neutral, automated inevitability, but the result of ideas and desires. And unlike technology, desires stay somewhat consistent through the ages. As a story that appears to be about publishing, Non-Fiction presents itself as a philosophically rigorous work for our era. But as a story that’s ultimately about two marriages, it ends up, despite abandoning its intellectual articulateness, being a tale for all epochs. It goes from being a purportedly non-fiction op-ed, to ending in a manner where (as Léonard argues is always the case) the fiction non-fiction divide is rendered meaningless.