Non-Fiction wastes little time getting to the issues that are at its heart, opening with a discussion of a book on politics that’s causing a stir. Or at least ripples. Seeing as how the film is set in the world of Parisian publishers, it makes sense that the characters would spend their time discussing books, how modern audiences value art (or don’t), and how the written word and the business around it is changing in our digital era.
Olivier Assayas, who also wrote and directed Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria, is certainly the ideal filmmaker to bring this world and its concerns to life without taking his characters too seriously. It would be inherently difficult with such an upper class, insular setting, but then, Assayas doesn’t give us too much reason to care either, even if he makes a point of holding all these people accountable.
Author Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne) is a controversial writer who uses his real life affairs as fodder for his novels. His latest fling is with Selena (Juliette Binoche), an actress in an acclaimed TV series. Selena just also happens to be married to Léonard’s editor Alain (Guillaume Canet), who is also cheating on Selena with Laure (Christa Théret), a young digital consultant. Oh, Laure also has a girlfriend.
Even if the ridiculousness of all these needlessly complicated romantic entanglements is the point, they still all fail to be interesting, mostly because they’re all familiar composites of the same old archetypes. Léonard is another callous writer who lives off his wife Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), a left wing political consultant, and who fails to realize “his radicality is also narcissim,” as Alain points out. Alain’s mistress Laure is another cliché that just won’t die: a millenial who is unable to comprehend that there are any downsides to digitalization. She’s also never seen an Ingmar Bergman film. If there’s a bigger condemnation in the indie film world, I don’t know it.
These people are just so uniform, not just in terms of their whiteness (is no person of color allowed near the publishing industry in France?), but in their detachment from reality, one wherein wallowing in the anxieties of our digital age can’t even bring real discomfort. No one can take any kind of action without provoking cynicism. Even Valérie has to grapple with the politician she works for becoming involved in a sex scandal, which somehow seems to degrade her passion for a job that could actually make a positive difference. Then again, it shouldn’t be a surprise in a film that can’t even discuss adult coloring books without being depressing.
Since this is an Assayas film, there are also terrific performances, moments of humor, meta and otherwise, amidst the deceptively fluffy satire. The closest thing to a stance Non-Fiction takes is when it quotes the novel The Leopard and states, “Everything must change for things to stay as they are.” And the film is strongly in favor of embracing this change rather than suffering it. If everything in it didn’t feel so irrelevant in the face of the very real and lasting changes occurring in communities far more interesting and worthy of our attention, Non-Fiction would be every bit as enjoyable as it obviously believes itself to be.