The latest film from the French master is a piercing look at the state of publishing and mass media wrapped up in relationship drama.
From the way films are made, to the way they’re marketed, to the way they’re distributed and even the format in which they’re watched, cinema has gone through a massive sea change in the last decade and a half. It’s hard not to imagine that this change was a preoccupation in the mind of writer/director Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria) when he created his latest film, Non-Fiction. However, Assayas switches the anxiety of the changing media landscape from the film industry to the publishing industry, and the film deals with the writers and publishers who are trying (and sometimes failing) to keep up in the 21st century.
Press for Non-Fiction has generally stated that the plot is concerned with the strain in the relationship between publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet, The Beach) and writer Léonard (Vincent Macaigne, La Fille du 14 Julliet), that is caused when Alain declines to publish Léonard’s latest novel, “Full Stop”. However, the tension is not really the focus of the film. Instead, Non-Fiction mainly follows the leads’ relationships with their partners as well as many, many conversations about the state of literature and social media.
Indeed, the film almost feels like an excuse for Assayas to talk about the foibles of 21st-century communication, as almost every scene features some sort of debate on some aspect of the business side of literature. Conversations about whether or not Twitter counts as literature, or if the future of publishing lies in e-readers or physical books are abundant, almost to the point of overrunning the emotional arc of the story.
While “shop talk” about publishing is expected in a story about a writer and a publisher, the fact that most of the run time is devoted to the subject will undoubtedly turn off a lot of people. That said, for the right audience, the topic will be fascinating as the dialogue is well written and delivered with the expected Gallic panache.
More relatable to the general audience are the film’s themes of narcissism and feeling trapped. Thankfully, while the film talks a lot about social media, it avoids the common “narcissistic millennial” tropes – no selfies, curated feeds, or #hashtags here. Instead, the film focuses on the inherent narcissism of creation. The film makes it obvious that “Full Stop” is a thinly veiled autobiography of Léonard’s life: the protagonist shares the author’s name, neighborhood, and occupation.
To make matters worse, the female characters are obviously based off of Léonard’s ex-wife and former mistresses, leading to a bitter (albeit off-screen) feud between Léonard and his ex-wife. Macaigne plays the author with the right amount of sensitivity and sleaze. Léonard is the stereotypical self-involved writer: deeply obsessed with his feelings, work, and experience, but is blind to his disregard of others. Ironically enough, his inability to see outside himself is his biggest obstacle: Léonard’s inability to write about anything other than his past relationships has made his work feel stale, and is the reason Alain doesn’t want to publish it.
Non-Fiction’s other main theme is feeling trapped by life, and this is the main focus in Alain’s subplot. While he ostensibly has power as a literary editor of a major publishing house, he feels trapped by the uncertainty of the increasingly digital world. Despite being a long-term professional who has helped grow the company’s profits and prestige, the trends of the modern economy are too fickle for him to decide whether he wants to go fully digital or if he wants to keep printing physical books.
Exacerbating the dilemma is the fact that the company’s owner, Marc-Antoine (Pascal Greggory) is planning on selling the publishing house to a tech mogul, almost ensuring that Alain will be let go. Commendably, Canet doesn’t play Alain as befuddled or desperate, instead, he plays him with a businessman’s “fake-it-till-you-make-it” confidence that shows a man who won’t admit his insecurities.
Watching Non-Fiction feels less like watching a movie and more like watching real people navigating through a changing world.
Complementing Léonard and Alain’s themes are, appropriately enough, their partners. Both Léonard’s girlfriend, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) and Alain’s wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche, Chocolat) share in their partner’s crises. Like Léonard, Valérie purports to care about the state of the world but is incredibly self-centered. While Valérie works as a consultant for a socialist politician, in her personal life she doesn’t seem to care much for the people in her life; especially Léonard (when he tells her that his manuscript was rejected, she doesn’t react to the news, and even refuses to offer him comfort or empathy).
Likewise, Selena shares Alain’s sense of being trapped. In her case, she is a lead actress in a cop procedural, but despite the fame it brings her, she is bored with the role. However, she doesn’t want to put the show in a bind by retiring her character after only three seasons.
While Non-Fiction manages to keep Valérie and Selena from feeling like extensions of Léonard and Alain, there is one aspect of the relationship that feels a little regressive: the affairs. Both Léonard and Alain are having affairs: Alain with employee Laure (Christa Théret), and Léonard with Selena. The affair between Alain and Laure has a lot of markers of a stereotypical male fantasy: an older man with a younger woman (Canet is 46 and Théret is 27), Laure is Alain’s subordinate, and Laure is bisexual for no other reason than as an excuse for a short lesbian sex scene.
In contrast, Léonard and Selena’s affair seems a little more realistic (although it’s weird that a glamorous actress would end up with a shlubby writer), and moves the plot forward with Selena helping to get “Full Stop” published. Their subplot also leads to the best scene in the film, when Selena ends the affair and tearfully tells Léonard not to write about their breakup in a future novel. The scene is both intense and humorous and showcases Binoche’s fantastic presence.
Watching Non-Fiction feels less like watching a movie and more like watching real people navigating through a changing world. From the plainclothes cinematography to the dialogue to the loosely connected plot, the film has a sense of realism not often found in movies. In that sense, while the film is fictional, the title is – in its own way – accurate.
Non-Fiction premieres at the Music Box Theatre Friday, May 24. Get tickets here.