Non-Fiction - Review
A talkative statement on the value of modern culture.
French director Olivier Assayas’ last film won him the director prize at the Cannes Film Festival; it was his second with American actress Kristen Stewart, and posed a decidedly mainstream ghost story plot with a slight Hitchcock angle. Personal Shopper was a calculated risk, Assayas taking a full step into territory he had been inching toward for some years with films like Clouds of Sils Maria. Non-Fiction is another careful step, though this time into a pool Assayas is much more familiar with.
Revolving around the affairs of a very 21st century parisian friend group, Non-Fiction’s characters are more mouth-pieces for Assayas’ thoughts than living portraits. Through conversation we learn each of their respective secrets, like Selena’s relationship with Léonard and Alain’s affair with Laure, but these are mere interruptions. The real focus of Non-Fiction is a conversation on modern literature and its value. Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet) is a publisher searching for the next blow-up market following the steep decline of ebooks. Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) is the autobiographical author he is tasked to deal with. Léonard’s novels draw an effective if simple parallel between the culture discussion, contrasting “auto-fiction,” or the basis of fiction on real life events and persons, and a looming feeling of smallness. Criticism is losing value, books are becoming obsolete as the number of writers increases; pressing issues for a society built around the written word.
Not only are Assayas’ arguments well thought out, they also represent a willingness to engage with an audience that has largely written off aging, white male perspectives, along with the rest of that generation. In this way, Non-Fiction is Assayas’ most relevant film, which brings into question its longevity. From my point of view, this is a fine-tuned film that was built to last, not as a misplaced tirade or jab (I’m looking at you, Vice). These may all be the thoughts of one man, but the broadness of perspectives gives it the feeling of being inspired by multiple people, not unlike Léonard’s deliciously crude breakup novels.
Non-Fiction also finds time to poke fun at itself. There are moments like the fourth-wall-breaking mention of actress Juliette Binoche (who stars in the film) as a possible celebrity to do an audio-version of one of Léonard’s books, and the withholding of music for the first hour and a half of the film, but the best moments come in a casual deconstruction of modern society; of the books we read, the tweets we harmlessly send with the force of poetry, and the opinions we hold that are likely to make enemies.
Assayas dives full-force into these topics, presenting a slightly optimistic reading of a dire issue. Characters like Alain are aware of the coming changes, whether progressive or regressive, but are ready to deal with them. His opening conversation with Léonard tells us that his job has always meant these kinds of talks, the circular worrying of an entire generation before things inevitably shift for the better. Like or dislike it, Non-Fiction has what few other modern films do: a willingness, and wit, to engage with modern life through voices of the past.