Discussions of eternal virtues between characters with self-made problems, their self-articulated solutions and delusionary implementations, the real pitter-patter of the intelligentsia, fill up Non-Fiction, the new film from Olivier Assayas. Now the doyen of widely distributed art-house cinema, Assayas’s long and protean career has covered the waterfront of cinematic genres: the period piece (Sentimental Destinies), the inside-showbiz drama (Irma Vep and Clouds of Sils Maria), youthful romance (Cold Water and Something in the Air), the ghost story (Personal Shopper), a scuzzy espionage thriller (Demonlover), and, with Late August, Early September and Non-Fiction, two takes on the literary world. This genre globetrotting is indicative of Assayas’s lifelong closeness with cinema. Born to a screenwriter father in 1955, Assayas began as critic for Cahiers du cinéma in the late-70s and became a scriptwriter for André Techiné in the mid-80s before embarking on his long career directing features. His worldview has been always surrounded by film, colored by a life in constant rotation with cinema.
There are limits to this cinematic englobing. Specifically, subjects that lay closer to the heart than the mind often destabilize Assayas’s prodigious gifts as a filmmaker. For instance, his efforts at engaging with lower-class youths, as in Cold Water, feel closer to aesthetic tourism than to inhabitation. His greatest works, when not dealing with out-and-out genre, are in detailing the oscillations of intellectual and artistic life, or plainly stated, the bourgeois. Contemporary provocations in Irma Vep (1996); Late August, Early September’s (1998) rhythms of rutted intellectual life; the slow fissure of an industrialist family in Sentimental Destines (2000); the svelte observations of space in Summer Hours (2008)—Assayas excels when working in a milieu that approximates his own. For example, Assayas’s brother Michka is a critic and writer not unlike the struggling novelist in Late August. And even something like Personal Shopper (2016), which is set in fashion world, isn’t too far afield for someone like Assayas whose mother, Catherine de Karolyi, was a fashion designer. This is all to say that Non-Fiction, a French sex romp set around the publishing world peopled with novelists, editors, and actors, is a soft toss over the plate for Assayas.
The film’s thin plot revolves around four principle players: Alain (Guillaume Canet), the editor-in-chief at a prestigious publishing house; Selena (Juliette Binoche), an actor on a middling cop series and partner to Alain; Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) a wanton novelist; and his partner, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), an aide to a rising left-wing politician. The fictional world here appears as coterminous spheres, some overlapping and others in proximity. Ostensibly, Alain lies near the center, head of a publishing house in transition in the digital age, he spends his time adjudicating the long-term viability of the printed novel, e-books, monogamy, and his affair with an upstart new media expert. Early on he passes on a new book from Léonard, who writes thinly veiled auto-fiction about his shambolic life. Selena, who has been sleeping with Léonard for some time, tries to convince Alain of the book’s merits without clueing him in on her liaison, while Leonard tries to find some domestic stability with Valérie. It’s all very French—a tangled mess of lithe bodies and romantic ideals, where characters come to awry self-judgments using flawed logic and justify actions that thankfully never erupt into the usual splenetic quarrels of spurned lovers.
The unambitious plotline could lead one to believe the film is a mere bagatelle, some minor work completed while awaiting funds for something ambitious. It seems directors, Assayas included, reach an age and status where all new works are declared either major or minor when held up against his or her entire corpus. Perhaps there is some value to this default sorting apparatus, it does foster comparative thinking and disallows fits of ahistoricism, but it leaches subtlety and discounts artistry. A select few filmmakers even have something like “fleet in being”—Angela Schanelec, Mia Hansen-Løve, Hong Sang-soo—directors who don’t have to leave the port to strike up reverence and awe. So when Assayas stays home to make a sex dramedy set amongst the Parisian literati a viewer should be right to assume he is doing something more complex than a comedy of manners. Moreover, there is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance when seeing an artist tackle a project so firmly within his or her wheelhouse. Fearlessness and the inclination to defy expectations, two qualities associated with fine artistry, are spurned in favor of something close at hand. In that obviousness, which is not an attribute currently valued in contemporary film discourse, is the possibility to move past the inscrutable platitudes and surfaces of convention—past the customary artifacts, into the depths of something resembling insight.
It is easy to see why Non-Fiction, in a culture that values pomposity in its blockbusters but subtly in its art films, could be mistaken as slight, primarily because its mechanisms are fashioned in way that runs antithetical to other well-regarded films.Typically auteurist cinema is enigmatic, its themes buried under mise-en-scène, form, and dense narratives, and the audience is entrusted to search. This spadework can be quite rewarding, but the feeling of self-fulfillment often gets entwined with the aesthetic evaluation. Here, Assayas constructs a film with scene-long conversations usually centered on an individual topic: art, ethics, politics, social media, sex and love, criticism—a sheaf of everyday conditions. This construction lifts the films ideas to the surface, allowing for topics to be discussed openly without muddying metaphors and symbolism. Take a scene involving Léonard and Selena, where they steal away to a secluded pub while their partners are away on business. Selena confronts Léonard about his glamorization of the truth in his latest roman à clef. She cites two egregious examples: a sexual act performed during a blockbuster film that was changed to an austere art film and a secret rendezvous in Brive that was changed to the Alcazar gardens in Seville. The two are clearly discussing the ethics of writing auto-fiction (a genre the French never miss a chance to say they’ve been doing for decades), e.g. when is it okay to romanticize or introduce storytelling? Watching this idea, and others, being reckoned with, being turned over, makes for both an enthralling and liberating experience.
That the film achieves this depth while still feeling breezy is a testament to Assayas’s craftsmanship and script. He has always had a keen sense of how to enter and when to end a scene, but here he writes long quick-fire palavers chockfull of wit and complexity. The four leads do wonders with the wordiness of the script, but the bit players here, led by Pascal Greggory (emanating the platonic ideal of sagacity), are able to provide a roundness to characters that functionally serve to espouse a specific viewpoint. They could have easily felt like mouthpieces for Assayas, only there to be paper tigers for the director’s true beliefs, but they are given enough eccentricities and depth to come off as knowledgeable interlocutors. As strong as the writing is, it doesn’t hurt that cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (having a hell of a year lensing this, High Life and Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming Little Women) captures the pert navy blues and bookstore browns of a Parisian winter on Super 16mm. Assayas also winnows away a lot of his usual camera mobility, capturing most scenes in static frames from multiple angles, which are edited together with a palpable zip by Simon Jacquet.
Non-Fiction is as close as Assayas, a great style mimic, has gotten to Eric Rohmer—an admirable goal for a work about the vicissitudes of romantic relationships. The film bares strong marks of influence from Romher’s The Tree, The Mayor, and the Mediatheque (1993), which features a similarly dialectic approach to discussing ideas and issues matter-of-factly. There is a prominent lineage, heavily influenced by Rohmer, arcing through post-war French cinema that is poetic, elliptical, and dramatic, but still in the realm of realism. It’s in the work of Maurice Pialat, Jean Eustache, Techiné, and Jacques Doillon. This type of French cinematic realism, which Non-Fiction certainly trades in, is not far removed from Léonard’s ideas about auto-fiction. Namely, that heightened emotions and poetic embellishments are not inherently bad, they can ward off didacticism and monotony allowing a viewer to paradoxically get closer to a film’s essence. Fittingly, the film’s meaning is not laced throughout the many topical discussions. Assayas has no interest in spouting his opinions about social media or publishing; he ends scenes before any true conclusion is uttered. This tactic clues one onto the real spirit of the film: the endlessness of bettering an idea, of refining one’s personal ethics, finding and maintaining love, and searching for enduring values, ultimately, the stuff that fills up a lifetime. So it’s telling then that Assayas ends the film with pregnancies, one a book and one a child, as that is a true lasting act, and something that spans beyond the present.