What interests me (and I suspect, Assayas) is not so much the substance of these dinner table debates, which tend to move in predictable repeating circles, as their texture. People volley shots from their fixed positions and never budge, as they sit in (barely) shifting interiors from restaurants to apartments and back again. The stretches of the film in which the characters debate the effects on technological dominance on our lives, actually replicate the flattened-out condition of life as lived on the internet. Everyone argues, gets drunk on their own rhetoric, and backs further into their own corner.
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It’s become a critical commonplace to divvy Olivier Assayas’s work into the international – formally experimental, thematically edgy – and his smaller “French” films (frequently financed by the French government). Non-Fiction falls solidly in the second camp, with its artsy principals taking a break from heated philosophical discussions only long enough to fall into each other’s beds, or, in the case of the actresses (including frequent collaborator Juliette Binoche), to flash some traditional European casual nudity. It’s almost like a nouvelle vague time machine back to the sixties, say early Éric Rohmer.
Like most of our neat categories, however, the separation between these two modes is rather permeable – Assayas is just as concerned with the sweeping effects of globalization in his so-called “French” films. Non-Fiction concerns a distinguished traditional publishing firm grappling with a changing literary economy increasingly oriented toward e-books and digital outreach, as well as the looming possibility the firm itself will be sold for parts to a foreign conglomerate. Assayas, on his thirty-something-ish tour of auteur-duty, brings a deft touch to this exploration of cultural life in crisis. What seems on the surface to be a frothy sex comedy actually delves much deeper. Just as he plays with different genres, Assayas also works on different registers simultaneously, while circling around the same set of concerns, ably summarized by Ella Taylor as “how to survive, feel and create in an age of accelerating technological change.”
Several of the main characters in Non-Fiction work in the publishing industry, and the others mostly work in media fields as well, such as television acting and political consulting. These are people who find themselves under the gun in a changing economy, even as they are more or less successful by normal standards. The form their anxiety takes is endless talk, over equally bottomless glasses of wine, about what the future holds.
What interests me (and I suspect, Assayas) is not so much the substance of these dinner table debates, which tend to move in predictable repeating circles, as their texture. People volley shots from their fixed positions and never budge, as they sit in (barely) shifting interiors from restaurants to apartments and back again. The stretches of the film in which the characters debate the effects on technological dominance on our lives, actually replicate the flattened-out condition of life as lived on the internet. Everyone argues, gets drunk on their own rhetoric, and backs further into their own corner. As during the course of a boozy dinner party, torpor eventually sets in. As Juliette Binoche’s character Selena, who increasingly becomes the spokesperson for anti-digital sentiment within the film, remarks, “Do these people ever go outside?”
At first, Assayas appears relatively even-handed in all this, the camera hovering like a bee, sampling each character without settling into any particular point of view. Is the new digital economy a democratizing force or an oppressive one? Does the availability of free, up-to-the-minute articles online undermine book sales or augment them? To some extent, the conversations themselves even seem free-floating and unmotivated: the actress argues passionately against the emptiness of blogging, while her publisher husband argues it’s precisely the same thing Voltaire was doing in the 18th century. (We find out, in time, no one’s positions are truly unmotivated; the actress is speaking on behalf of her novelist lover, whose newest novel might be rejected by her husband’s firm as it transitions to an increasingly digital portfolio, and he negotiates his jealousy. Whereas her husband is having sweet-nothings murmured in his ear by the digital strategist with whom he is infatuated. Here, as almost always in Assayas, any little thread can be pursued to interesting effect, one reason Assayas is close to the hearts of film critics.
It’s with the character of the digital strategist, Laure, that Assayas tips his hand. In a movie in which the characters are defined by their professions to an almost ridiculously allegorical degree, Laure (Christa Théret) takes the cake. We first hear about her at one of the talky dinner parties that make up so much of the film. Alain (the publisher) mentions her in passing, and his wife (Selena) replies acerbically “The one with the sexual predator style?” (Selena had earlier been musing to a friend on set that she had the feeling Alain was having an affair but was hesitant to confront him about it, perhaps because she too has been carrying on an extramarital alliance for going-on six years.)
Soon after, we see Alain knock on her hotel door during a business trip, then later see them naked in bed, clearly not for the first time. From first to last, she is defined as a sexual creature. She plies her charms without any traditional feminine modesty. Indeed, we find out in the only scene devoted to her existence independent from Alain that she is bisexual, and in fact prefers women, but is not averse to sexual dalliances with older, powerful men if they suit her purposes.
Freshly emerged from bed, Laure outlines her sweeping digital strategy. The sexually entranced Alain questions her about what this digital future would look like. As she begins to detail her philosophy, he rapidly goes from entranced to repulsed. Readers like familiar books they can purchase at a discount online, she argues, like the romances of Nora Roberts (Assayas, always fluent in American culture, invokes mass market writer Roberts by name). Writers increasingly connect directly with readers online, she says, with no need for critics for cultural curation. The market, finally, will itself dictate the story, become the author, with keywords informing composition itself on a deep structural level. It is at these final two assertions Alain – stand-in, perhaps, for the former critic and now-auteur Assayas – that Alain recoils in horror. Soon after, he breaks up with and fires Laure in one fell swoop. (The scene in which Laure is fired is rather remarkable. Are the French really that different, that dismissing the underling with whom you are having an affair the moment the entanglement becomes inconvenient, and doing so with a golden trinket and an insult by way of a severance package, carries no legal ramifications? The way her character is treated in this movie, and the lack of reaction from any critic to this outrageous episode, would suggest that in the case of digital strategist, aka common floozies, anything goes.)
“In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love,” wrote Frank O’Hara, in one of his poems dating from the late ’50s. Non-Fiction could go equally well by that poem’s title, “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” as well as shared themes concerning proved loyalty and primary affiliations. Predictably, it’s when Alain renounces the digital altogether that the relationships in the film settle back into their former happy grooves, the couples re-enter Arcadia (the last scene, in a major departure from the crowded interiors that make up most of the film, is outdoors, at a luxurious villa with an uninterrupted view of the sea).
The running joke is that Selena the aging actress has found a career renaissance in a TV procedural. Throughout the movie, people keep telling her they enjoy her powerful cop character, and she patiently informs them she is in point of fact a “crisis management expert.” It turns out Assayas, like Selena, is a cop after all: he carefully puts everyone back in their lawful place.
We end with this edenic pastoral setting, with Selena having renounced her tawdry, if rewarding, career as a television star, for a more substantial role in the theater (in one of the many running jokes, we see how detective series like Prime Suspect and The Closer have replaced Phaedra, the role Binoche now resumes, as a showpiece for aging actresses). Alain’s own job has been in jeopardy with his firm possibly being gobbled up by a big conglomerate; but that threat, too, magically evaporates with the restoration of the rightful conjugal relationship (and the ejection of the digital seductress).
The other couple, consisting of Leonard the novelist and Valérie the political consultant, are also restored to marital harmony, after several rocky scenes earlier in the film. They glow with sexual well-being, and have even become magically fecund. In the closing scene she reveals she is pregnant; after years of IVF, they have managed to conceive quite naturally. The embryo is safely nestled inside her, “the size of a lentil” as they gaze out over the unpolluted horizon of a country seascape. The film lulls us with this beautiful final scene. We don’t know what the future may bring us after all, though it seems safe to say we won’t find Olivier Assayas on the Netflix roster anytime soon.