Olivier Assayas tackles the concept of relevance in his latest

Patrick Preziosi on Olivier Assayas’ ‘Non-Fiction’ (2018)

Close to the end of French director Olivier Assayas newest film, Non-Fiction / Doubles vies, Juliette Binoche’s name is suddenly dropped into conversation between the two romantic couples at the core of the film’s narrative. The kicker here is that Binoche herself is present, playing Selena, the star of serialised police procedural, “Collusion”, and Selena’s place in the acting world is what at least puts her in contact with Binoche’s agent.

It’s a tightly crafted trick that Assayas has consistently employed across his filmography — moving past meta for meta’s sake gesturing, and placing him again one step closer to what seems to be his career spanning concern: how to craft entire cinematic worlds that aren’t meant to be representations of our own culture, but in turn, reflections. He’ll assemble a pop zeitgeist which carefully cherry picks from our own, so that us as viewers have a few footholds in a body of work that zigzags across genre and style.

However, Non-Fiction is a deceptively insular affair, trading in knotty investigations of the film industry (2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, 1996’s Irma Vep) and corporate Manga-porn espionage (2002’s Demonlover) for a markedly more “mature” subject: the place of literature in the ever-growing digital 21st century.

The film begins with a reputable Parisian publisher – –soon established as Selena’s husband — Alain (Guillame Canet) engaging in some verbal sparring about social media and e-books with a repeat client, Léonard (Vincent Macaigne). Léonard’s having lunch in the hope that Alain will publish his newest manuscript, “Full-Stop”, as Alain has done the same for the last few. However, Alain considers the auto-fictitious document of extramarital affairs and movie theatre blowjobs repetitious and too sordid by this point, and shoots him down.

Though not exactly a catalysing event, the rejection Léonard receives sets off a series of different conversation pieces amongst different combinations of characters that tackle digitalisation from both the creative and business side. Not all the stances taken are entirely noble, however. Non-Fiction also plays as a comedy of manners, as the central two couples seem to be engaged in different affairs. Léonard is cheating on his political advisor wife, Valérie (an excellent Nora Hamzawi) with Selena, one of the quickest to defend the Full-Stop manuscript to Alain. Alain, on the other hand, calmly anticipates the changing current of physical print, but could his unfazed demeanour just be because he’s occasionally sleeping with the company’s young new head of digital transition, Laure (Christa Théret).

Imbuing the somewhat circuitous conversations with undertones of sexual appetite does give the film an added heft of welcome humour, but also in doing so, Assayas ensures his characters exist beyond mouthpieces. Instead, they are each their own unique little bundle of contradictions that rub up against one another. Léonard is established as a starving-artist type, bemoaning technology and pledging a materialism free lifestyle; later, Valérie has to ask him for one “device-free night” when he keeps checking and giggling at his phone at a party, her tone being that of an exhausted mother more than anything else. Selena is quick to defend the integrity of print, and reading novels physically, but her being an actress puts her at something of a remove from the rest of the literary-centric milieu she inhabits with her husband. Her staunch, though stereotypical affirmations make more sense in this regard.

With Non-Fiction, Assayas once again straddles his preoccupations with modern technology with his more cinephile tendencies, still being one of the few directors to get smartphone futzing right (which he so expertly stuck the landing with in 2016’s Personal Shopper), while taking wholehearted delight in the possibilities of a moving camera. Yorick Le Saux’s (Only Lovers Left Alive, High Life) 35 mm cinematography is as probing as ever, fluidly navigating crowded cafés and borderline-disastrous Q&As that feel airlifted from a Hong Sang-soo film. Assayas deploys the same techniques even in moments of expected quiet, such as Selena and Alain at home after a day spent with Alain’s boss. Although it’s just the two of them, the camerawork still retains a jitteriness that seems to embody Selena’s nervousness that Alain has caught on to her six-year affair with Léonard (but he hasn’t!)

Assayas has always displayed a preternatural talent to have his finger on a culture’s pulse, and initially, it seemed possible that Non-Fiction’s script was his first unfortunate stumble into datedness. However, the more these characters grope their way through uncertainty, such datedness becomes apparent as their crutch; even Laure, whose just-less-than-current ideas for the “democratisation of literature” are indicative of her “disruptor” status in a market populated mostly by men who like their books on paper.

There’s a joke that Non-Fiction cycles back to a handful of times, and even Assayas seems to understand how well it can land, repeatedly. The aforementioned bout of oral-sex in a movie theatre was between Léonard and Selena, during Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015); in Léonard’s book, it’s changed to Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009). Haneke — catnip for self-proclaiming cinephiles — similarly explored a literary-bourgeoisie milieu in 2005’s Caché (also starring Binoche), though with a much heavier hand, turning his very characters into the mouthpieces that Assayas side steps. Haneke’s mentioning is the perfect stab at asserting high-art concerns, especially in the case of the floundering Léonard. It’s riotously funny—its inclusion comes back to bite Léonard in a radio interview—and just the tiniest bit sad. As much as the occasionally bittersweet Non-Fiction is about enduring cultural change, it’s also a merciless surveyor of the laughable ways we find ourselves clinging to relevance.

Showing in cinemas 18 October 18 2019

Patrick Preziosi

By Patrick Preziosi

Patrick Preziosi is a freelance critic from Brooklyn, NY. He’s written about film, music and literature for photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Metrograph Edition, Little White Lies, America Magazine, and Screen Slate.