"Was that a period film?" asked a bemused friend after watching Olivier Assayas's new film. It is not, but set in the small, elite milieu of French book publishing and stuffed with references to digital strategy, blogs, Twitter, and e-books, Non-Fiction is set precariously on a cutting edge of cultural evolution whose talking points were outdated before the film was even finished. But that matters little to the thrust of this fun little comedy, which for all its bantering discussion between publishers, authors, and their wives and girlfriends about the current state of this particular industry, is above all about the flux of time that catches everything in its current, whether it is culture, economics, or people.
Guillaume Canet plays the immaculately genteel, effortlessly haughty editor of a publishing house; Juliette Binoche his wife and an actress who, in a gesture to the rapid changes occurring across the arts, has achieved new and bigger success in a television police series. In an amusing performance of fidgety self-obsession and comic self-loathing Vincent Macaigne is an author who transforms his life into fiction (thus the title of the film, as well as its French title, Double vies); Nora Hamzawi, wonderfully wry, is his partner and the campaign manager for a local liberal politician. The film opens with Canet treating Macaigne to lunch but refusing to publish his next book because it's another auto-fiction. Canet is cheating on his wife with the young digital transition consultant his firm has hired—a hilarious double entendre of grasping at youth—but the infidelity evens out because Binoche has been, in a terrific implausibility, carrying on a multi-year affair with Macaigne, the details of which the author has folded into his new novel. A quintessentially French film, the sex lives of its characters are inextricable from the high-level ideas they argue over in cafes, at chic dinner parties, at the country estate of the publisher. Assayas directs these with ease and sympathy, rendering a film that's mostly talk—and mostly talk about ideas—alive, frequently lacerating, and quite funny.
The ensemble turn over the notions of fictionalizing real life, of how technology changes both the content of and the access to an art, and what responsibility authors have to their subjects, their medium, and to themselves. Not necessarily new topics, but what Assayas does is show how embroiled in our lives questions of art and commerce are. Some of Non-Fiction's characters overlap this book world, but others—notably, its women—do not, so while the motif across the film is literature, what is foregrounded as its substance are the discussions of art-making and money-making, how people spend their time, and how positions taken on all these things impact everyone's relationships. Add to this the factor of time: Yes, the film already appears dated—almost surreally so, due to its proximity to the present moment—but that's because time is continually re-shaping all things. To adapt or entrench in order to make money, be creative, or be happy—this is the crisis, subtly rendered in this casually engaging and deceptively off-hand film, we face each and every day.
We spoke to writer-director Olivier Assayas about his film at its American premiere at the New York Film Festival.
NOTEBOOK: After making films dealing with the porcelain industry, about filmmaking, about music-making, and about the theatre and acting, do you see this movie as the continuation of a project to explore art and commerce through cinema?
OLIVIER ASSAYAS: I suppose it’s part of it. I suppose it’s part of it, but when I’m doing a movie like Sentimental Destinies, the recreation of the porcelain industry and the discussions about how globalization changed Western societies was much more accurate and present. Here, I’m kind of using the publishing world as a backdrop to do something that has to do with how we adapt or how we don’t adapt to change. I was writing it having more in mind the idea of using something that happens to be a modern vector of change, being the digital revolution, and to stand for whatever has been transforming societies, and how individuals have been trying to come to terms with it through their own actions, but also through their own doubts, their own questions, and the way those question are never really answered.
NOTEBOOK: In that case, why did you land on book publishing instead of, say cinema or something else as another digital art transformation?
ASSAYAS: I thought that the way digitalization affects the publishing industry is just more clear or clean-cut—it’s pretty radical. It’s really about words on a page, words on a printed page as opposed to a screen. If I had to deal with cinema I would have made a completely different film, also because the major changes in cinema have already happened. They keep on happening. But I think the process has been much more complex, it started with sound, then color timing, then it was digital cameras, then it kind of transformed the whole distribution of film, the viewing of films… it’s a very complex, ongoing process, and I don’t think I could have been as literal as I am with publishing. Also, the publishing world is an interesting case in study in the sense that it’s an industry that should have been affected much more by the digital revolution, and ultimately it’s still an open question.
NOTEBOOK: One of the things that struck me most strongly about this movie was that it’s about the digital publishing world, but you don’t really see much of that world. It’s talked about rather than evoked. The film in fact is quite abstract.
ASSAYAS: It’s completely abstract. I mean, in the sense that what I’m interested in is how it affects individuals. That’s exactly what I was trying to say: when I was filming porcelain, filming porcelain was part of the subject, or even seeing how you nurture or blend cognac, or whatever. Here it’s more of a common background we have with those characters. If I dealt with cinema or something where the issue is a little bit more complex, I would have had to show it, to explain it. Here, it’s basic. Everyone understands what it’s about, and it can also be a clear and simple equivalent for how the same issues transform society in every single domain. You’re a plumber, you’re affected by it.
NOTEBOOK: In a way, this movie is like a discourse film, so much of the dialogue is discussion. Not to break it down too simply, but how did you weigh discussion versus the melodrama in the writing?
ASSAYAS: Movies somehow happen to me, I don’t have some kind of big career plan, or I don’t approach movies with the notion that I shouldn’t make this kind of film. I have my back to the wall, there’s only one thing I can write, because there happens to be only one thing that generates my desire to write at a specific moment. I wrote a first completely different version of this movie a few years ago, which was much more a narrative, and it was in many ways much more a classic film... with stuff happening to two people [laughs], and drama, violence, whatever—you know? And at the time it did not happen, but it had a similar central character, meaning a middle-aged publisher having to deal with how the world is changing around him. And as much as the project faded, the character stayed.
At some point I thought maybe I should go back to that screenplay and see if I should update it. And I read it and I just froze. I was a different person, I was a different filmmaker, things had changed. It made no sense. And it also questioned even the validity of the whole… of my desire. So I kind of struggled with it, until I thought “to hell with it,” I’m just going to write the first scene and see what happens. And at that point I realized that what I was interested in were the ideas more than the drama that was in the initial screenplay, and actually I wanted a movie completely without drama, and why not make a movie about ideas? I wrote this absurdly long scene, which ended up being like twelve printed pages or something, and it was… you know: what’s the next step? I had no idea!
So I kind of accepted the idea that this was a movie about people talking, and why not? I realize it’s exactly the thing you’ve been warned against, it’s something you should not do in movies, that audiences will be bored—at every stage it will be problematic because it’s the major evil today to deal with ideas, intellectuals. Instantly, you know: those people live in the kind of places someone with the kind of job they have would live—it’s very precise—and I read everywhere, “oh, all of those guys in luxury flats,” or whatever. Oh please, where are you living? I’m representing the world of those people. He’s a publisher, yes, he’s not going to live in the projects. He’s a writer, the woman has a job so they rent a flat—it’s not absurd.
NOTEBOOK: I thought the mise en scène was very precise to the milieu, it was one of the things that really stands out about the film.
ASSAYAS: Yeah, yeah. What I’m saying is that people are prejudiced against intellectuals, and anything that has to do with any kind of intellectual discourse is supposed to be completely disconnected from real life, and so on, and so forth. It becomes such censorship. So what the hell, maybe it’s worth trying, to see what happens if I do it. If I manage to do it. The only way I can do it is if I’m using famous actors. So that’s the only reason I managed.
NOTEBOOK: Talking about a film that is made up so much of ideas and discourse, maybe you can answer a practical question: how do you approach directing or the decoupage of these long party scenes with so much dialog? They are full of constant movement, the staging goes inside and outside, up and down, includes little social activities...
ASSAYAS: I think I realized what I need to do by doing it. I have no preconceived ideas, especially on a film like this—which scared me, in the sense that I had no idea how to deal with that material and not be boring. I realized that it had to have this kind of comedy pace, it had to be fast, and it was all about the energy in the acting. I had to protect that. But in terms of directing, it’s absurdly difficult. It’s not very flattering in the sense that people are going to tell you: oh, this is visually not as interesting as your other movies. But the thing is that it’s ten times tougher, because you have to get away with really long scenes and keep them moving. It becomes extremely technical, and very challenging.
NOTEBOOK: Because you chose to do a movie about current technology, about current culture, this is a film that in a way is immediately a snapshot of the time, whether you’re being accurate or not. Five years from now it’ll seem like a different era. People will look back and see your film—whether you were trying to or not—as describing something of the moment of which it was made.
ASSAYAS: I like the idea of making a movie about the instant, and it’s never exactly the instant because when you make movies, even if you go super fast it still [takes] two years. As opposed to journalism or to pop songs, or whatever. You write a song, maybe next month it can be around. You make a movie and even if you speed up the process, you have to think about it, somehow digest it, write it, finance it, shoot it… and even in France the absurdity is I finished the film in June and it’s only opening in January! I like the idea of making a movie that is a snapshot of the times, and to deal with issues that are in a state of flux, because I think that movies should try to do that. I mean, they should be and could be part of the conversation, even on those issues. So I kind of accepted the notion of making a movie that was a very dated film. It was part of the deal. But then, honestly I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t think it’ll age more than other movies. I think ultimately every single movie is defined by something that is in movement, which is our culture, our taste, our interests, our focus. Every single film has that kind of DNA. I think that if it’s entertaining, it’ll stay entertaining. And again, because, yes, I’m using a modern vector of change, ultimately it being about individuals is the only way a movie like that can be relevant. I think that individuals will always be confronted with these issues.