Film review - 'Non-Fiction' directed by Olivier Assayas


“This is the kind of French movie they warned you about” — Olivier Assayas

Non-Fiction was one of the most popular films at TIFF; this may be largely due to director Oliver Assayas’ prestige among movie-lovers, along with an impressive cast led by Juliette Binoche; but the intriguing idea of the film, not a documentary but a drama, which attempts to address virtual reality and its effects on all aspects of our lives, and on our art, may also have had something to do with it.

Assayas’ films are not known for being straightforward tales, following a logical plot, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Events in his productions often flow naturally, their direction and importance determined by their connection to the characters, the film’s central theme, or both – not by their place in a linear storyline. His approach makes for some fascinating, if challenging, work, including past efforts to incorporate social media into the story – most notably the unusual extended scene in Personal Shopper, which used, with surprising effectiveness, a sinister series of texts as part of a story about the supernatural – but with his most recent film, Assayas has even further loosened his hold on conventional plot structure. ‘Doubles Vies’ (Double Lives), the original French title, also released under the title Non-Fiction and originally called E-book, is a comedy/drama whose style hints at cinema verité, following a series of conversations, social gatherings, workplace discussions, and other forms of human interaction, all relating back in some way to one theme: virtual reality, its overwhelming presence, how it influences our lives, culture, art, human contact, and even our understanding of the nature of reality. The conflict between the real and the false, and the difficulty in being sure which is which in a world that depends so much on the virtual or fake rather than the tangibly real, runs through every scene, either overtly or indirectly.

The central characters are two couples: Alain (Guillaume Canet), a book publisher, and his wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), an actress; and author Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) and his wife Valerie (Nora Hamzawi), a political journalist. The open-ended plot which holds the film together has to do with the characters’ personal and professional lives. Alain’s company has been pressured to move into digital publishing, something he is uncomfortable with, feeling it will devalue the books he publishes but without being able to explain exactly why. Selena is an excellent actress who feels a bit ashamed of her role in a popular but lowbrow action television series, Collusion. Leonard is a well-known fiction writer who has been spinning his wheels for years, re-using the same themes and concepts that worked for him previously, and notorious for turning former lovers into characters in his novels. And Leonard’s wife, Valerie, is a dedicated professional who struggles with the bending of the truth her work often requires. The four main characters, their diverse personalities, and their respective professions, allow for several points of view to be represented in the early part of the film, which introduces the characters and consists of a series of business meetings and social gatherings, during which the main subject matter comes up in conversation in countless forms.

The conversation which opens the film, between publisher Alain and a group of friends, begins by talking about the value of Twitter. The discussion counters the immediate and easy conclusion that it is drivel, with a comment from a guest that it is similar to the frivolous but witty snark and competitive ridicule of the ancien regime. Talking over a recently published political diatribe, the guests go on to discuss the comparative impact of online as opposed to print commentary, whether print books are out of step with the times. An author notes that far more people read his online blog than his actual books. Some well-read guests bemoan the fact that, as they see it, online material results in less reading and more credulity, something which could disastrously affect political systems. They become indignant over the popularity of undemanding materials, such as colouring books for adults. By way of contrast, in a nearby bedroom, the host’s little boy is read a bedtime story – from a conventional, print storybook. Nothing is resolved, no single point of view wins out, but some key issues are raised, leading naturally to Alain’s painful obligation to have his publishing business digitised.

At work, Alain reluctantly welcomes an expert on transition to digital, a young woman named Laure (Christa Théret), professional and polite, but unconsciously derisive of print books and those who prefer them, aware of negative perceptions and resistance to the digital transition, but regarding the attitude as quaint and irrelevant, casually insisting that things like print books are passé, soon to be replaced. She is dismissive of any concerns about the cheapening of content that might result and brushes aside Alain’s nostalgia for, as he sees it, more serious and less transient material; “Tweets are the modern day haiku,” she remarks. Laure clearly represents the publishing world of the future. Alain is at once attracted and repelled by her, but her attitude leads him to delve further into the effects of changes in media, and the discussions become darker. Writer friends suggest that online writing is different in quality from writing for print; as one explains, writers can no longer write merely for either accuracy or beauty; they have to use more “keywords” to ensure their item is picked up by the bots. Others go further, suggesting we now live in a “post-truth world” where “information no longer exists.” Alain, bruised from being made to feel like a cultural relic, plaintively compares his love of real, bound hardcover books to the preaching of a clergyman in a church no one attends.

The film goes beyond a series of conversations, to follow the personal lives of the main characters, both couples close and affectionate, but also either involved in affairs, considering affairs, or preparing to end affairs – including a very funny scene in which Selena verbally pummels her clingy and oblivious lover into accepting that their relationship is over. The question of surface reality and hidden truth, of deceit and self-deception, in marriage as elsewhere, becomes a thread that runs through every character’s storyline. It is presented side by side with the soul-searching of Alain and his literary friends; with the moral dilemma of Valerie, who is trying to reconcile her dedication to truth in journalism with the need to cover up her pet candidate’s scandals, to accept the conflict between truth and public perception; and with the self-pity of Leonard, whose truth-based, autobiographical fiction is falling out of favour.

Despite the un-cinematic preference for words over images, the film sustains interest by keeping the characters, their concerns and their personal struggles, in the forefront, and by giving the viewer the interesting task of a judge at an informal debate, on a subject almost everyone has an opinion about. The lack of conventional plot and the lengthy, naturalistic group dialogue scenes do not make the story dull. Assayas allows the funny side of the many discussions, the fears and resentments involved, to emerge regularly; as well as some of the oddities of modern social life, such as the moment when two people officially meet for the first time after their respective machines have interacted for weeks; or the ritual of coming home from work and first detaching oneself from various devices, and plugging them all in to recharge, before being truly home for the evening. As part of the investigation of reality as opposed to spectacle, he also indulges in meta moments, ranging from subtle to laughably obvious, the most blatant taking place during a social gathering, when a film producer mentions trying to cast Juliette Binoche for his latest production, while Binoche herself, or rather, her character, is one of the guests present – a work of fiction deliberately and mischievously shattering the suspension of disbelief, something highly appropriate for this film’s theme.

Non-Fiction’s many disputes have no apparent winner; Assayas seems to carefully avoid taking sides, and like the unsteady and subjective reality some of the characters describe, the film’s message will likely be seen differently by each individual. There is also no conclusion, in the sense of the countless questions and worries presented being resolved, but the film does allow key characters to accept inevitable change, at the very least to resign themselves to perpetual uncertainty, or to accept, as one character does, that “everything must change for things to stay as they are”. The film’s final scene is a simple, precariously hopeful one, in which a married couple, having reconciled with one another in the most traditional way possible, recognise the value not only of love itself, but of the few remaining things which are unquestionably real.

For further viewing…

eXistenZ, David Cronenberg’s grisly 1999 action/sci-fi film, with a title that plays on the word ‘existential,’ offers a dark exploration of the confusing line between fantasy and reality, with a strange, violent story about a new level of video game that plugs directly into the player’s central nervous system.

Spike Jonze’s 2013 drama, Her, imagines the next, more realistic version of Siri or Alexa, and a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) who develops what seems to be a genuine relationship with the ‘person’ in his device.

With the unique 2004 film, I Heart Huckabees, David O. Russell manages to produce what may be the first and only comedy about existentialism.