Non-Fiction (Doubles vies)

France (2018) Dir. Olivier Assayas

To move with the times or stay with what we know is tried and tested? A dispute for the ages that will never dissipate as long a technology keeps developing. We all have or opinions on this and other issues but what forms and influences these opinions is always going to be the decisive factor.

Literary editor Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet) has to tell auto-fiction writer Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne) for the first time ever that he won’t be publishing Léonard’s latest novel. Part of the reason is how Alain feels Léonard’s works are all thinly disguised tales of his real life affairs, unaware that the subject of this new work is Alain’s wife, actress Selena (Juliette Binoche).

Meanwhile, as physical book sales start to fall and the rise of E-books and digital access to literature continues, Alain’s company wants to modernise and focus on adapting to this format, which he is uncomfortable with. But Alain is tempted to change his mind when he meets Laure (Christa Théret), the young woman in charge of the switch over and they begin an affair.

Sounds enticing but French cinema has a bad habit of formulating interesting ideas for a plot which they then choose to tell in the most obnoxious and counterproductive ways possible. Channelling his inner Eric Rohmer, Olivier Assayas has done just that with Non-Fiction, although like with Rohmer’s films, I’m sure there are many people who will find this approach enchanting and agreeable.

In breaking this down in terms of “show” and “tell”, this is a verbose heavy film putting it firmly in the “tell” category with minimal “show”. Again, there is value to this style of filmmaking but it helps if the discussions don’t all revolve around the same subject of whether books are out and electronic reading is the only way to enjoy literature or the old vs. modern argument.

Non-Fiction is also purported to be a comedy but like Shakespeare, the jokes are very hard to find unless one is either French or on Assayas’ wavelength. There is an exception though it is based on a crude foundation – in his book Léonard describes a sex act being performed on him during a screening of The Force Awakens, which he changes to the more artistically credible White Ribbon. This backfires on him when a radio interviewer questions him about the juxtaposition between this and the content of Haneke’s film.

But it is exploits likes these which Alain is unhappy about and objects to Léonard’s poor attitudes towards women, even though Alain thinks the text refers to another woman and not his wife to whom he is complaining about this. He doesn’t even suspect anything when Selena tries to encourage Alain to publish the book and always takes Léonard’s side during arguments over similar matters.

Léonard is hardly a stud – portly, hirsute, and slightly self-absorbed, so how he manages to have a string of lovers to fuel his writing is a mystery. He is married, to left-wing political consultant Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), herself currently trying to improve the public image of a libido driven client, who shows no interest in her husband’s situation. When Léonard tells her Alain is refusing to publish his latest book, she ignores it completely as she simply doesn’t care.

So why does Valérie stick with Léonard if they have nothing in common and she doesn’t give two figs about his career? Surely, if everyone else is able to figure out his stories are rooted in fiction Valérie must too, therefore is wilfully married to an open adulterer? How then does she have the nerve to be so dismissive of someone she should really not stay married too?

Elsewhere, in between arguing over the direction book consumption in the 21st century is heading, Alain and Laure are getting jiggy with it – but Laure is already in a relationship with a woman (Olivia Ross). This means everyone pretty much everyone in this film is messing about with somebody else, yet they all take the high road when debating issues with staunch righteousness and disregard for the other opinions like theirs is the only worthy one.

Maybe this was deliberate of Assayas in satirising people in artistic fields, no matter how tenuous, of their pretentious sense of self worth and oblivion to the perception of others they project. But I fear I am giving him too much credit as the extreme subtlety of the “humour” leaves any interpretation of satire nullified; instead, we are left watching an incestuous group of unlikeable people lying to each other unaware they are being lied to  as well and serve them right.

To that end, even though Assayas claims the idea behind the story is about adapting or refusing to adapt to change, which is the only thing that does come through with any clarity, by burying it beneath prolix discourses and fruitless conversations, a relatable and functional purpose to the film never really presents itself.  

Yet, the one thing this film isn’t is pretentious – bloated, self-indulgent, and obtuse for sure, but not pretentious. Aside from one meta moment when Léonard learns his book will get an audio version and Alain suggests Juliette Binoche as the reader despite her being hard to get hold of, Assayas never allows this to stray too far into smug territory and completely alienate those us already struggling with things.

At least the cast are watchable enough, with the versatile Binoche leading the charge as a blithely grounded actress who prefers a burger instead of steak when it comes to the bedroom. Binoche is able to keep the self-awareness out of the role so that Selena never veers into becoming a caricature but remains comedic through her blasé ignorance.

Just like the characters can’t agree, opinion on Non-Fiction will also be divided – some will love it, others won’t understand what the fuss is about. It’s watchable but woefully unfulfilling despite its juicy premise.