After a run of acclaimed films often characterised by a penchant for the experimental, it’s surprising, and initially, a little disappointing that Olivier Assayas’ latest is a romantic comedy-drama devoid of stylistic innovation while retaining his customary focus on the concerns of middle-class media types. Closer inspection does reveal that the Frenchman’s familiar concerns and themes remain very much present, and there is far more that ties the outwardly genteel Non-Fiction to a body of work that includes the cyberpunk torture porn provocation Demonlover and oblique fashionista ghost story Personal Shopper. It’s a film that rewards reserves of patience upon which many viewers may not willingly draw.
Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) is a writer whose reliance on plagiarising his own rumbunctious life reaches a crisis when his friend and publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet) tells him he won’t be publishing his new novel. Alain has concerns that the publishing industry is under threat from developing technology. These worries aren’t helped by post-coital chats with his strident young head of digital development Laure (Christa Théret). His wife Selena (Juliette Binoche) is an accomplished actor feeling constrained by a role in a popular cop drama. She’s also rightly fretting that Alain is playing away, but has nonetheless been involved in a long-standing affair with Leonard. Somewhat removed from the artistic temperaments and rattling headboards of this bohemian set is Leonard’s pragmatic political fixer girlfriend Valerie (Nora Hamzawi).
If this sounds somewhat infuriating and almost parodically French, then you would be correct. Many will also be turned off by the constant conversations – at dinner parties, in bars, in offices, in bed – about the effects of digital and social media on the lives and professions of the Parisian middle class, for good or ill. Eventually, however, what feels like a wispy Gallic shrug of a film reveals cleverly hidden layers as its excellent ensemble sculpt the personality of their characters from the gaps and pauses in the dextrous, verbose dialogue.
Behind the words of every character, coded in technobabble and heated debates between purists and modernists, lies the crippling fear of ageing, obsolescence, and the loss of personal and professional desirability. Leonard can’t resist splurging his sexual indiscretions on the page, Alain’s publishing house may be sold to a tech firm, Selena’s torn between the popularity of her TV show and the suspicion that it will erode her reputation as an actor, and Valerie’s struggling to conceal her politician boss’ shadier side from the Sauron’s eye of social media. All see their concerns as indicative of some deeper malaise, and in most cases, there’s the particular fascination of Assayas with the commodification of art lurking as a subtext.
That’s not to say Non-Fiction can’t be enjoyed on a surface level, particularly through its performances. As the most familiar name to British viewers, Binoche is typically appealing, albeit operating well within her comfort zone in a role similar to those in Assayas’ own Clouds of Sils Maria and Claire Denis‘ breezy palate cleanser Let the Sunshine In. It’s stand-up comedian Hamzawi who walks away with the movie, however. She’s the no-nonsense dose of reality that anchors the film against the flightiness of its other protagonists, and an attractive and assured presence who Assayas expertly employs whenever things threaten to veer towards the unbearable. The savage way she cuts Leonard off just before he tips into a bout of operatic self-pity is a near-magical sight for anyone familiar with the tantrums of the terminally narcissistic and is one of the film’s highlights.
While it almost trips over its own florid dialogue and will trigger accusations of a certain smugness through winking nods to more egalitarian cinematic fare such as Star Wars and the Fast & Furious series, Non-Fiction is a sharp, urbane and often terrifically witty drama, calling to mind prime Woody Allen fare like Hannah and Her Sisters, or more recently the films of Noah Baumbach. It’s a departure for Olivier Assayas, but not as much of one as it first appears.
@Filmhouse Edinburgh from Fri 18 Oct 2019