In Olivier Assayas’ Non-Fiction, people are always talking, there is always communication. Friends constantly meet over drinks or dinner; they discuss politics, the society around and, of course, books. The protagonist Alain (Guillaume Canet) is a successful book publisher and has reached that liminal cusp of his career when he is trying to wrap his heads around digital publishing, trying to make that timely career shift while vociferously defending the physical book and the old-pages-sniffing nostalgia of the bibliophile. It also doesn’t help that he is French, with his cultural DNA almost entirely made up books, films and wine. All the conversation in the film essentially underlines the anxieties of an entire generation about the digital age, about losing the ability to convey emotions through books and every other means of cultural production the generation is familiar with and has held sacred.
Non-Fiction is a film about liminaties. Alain and his wife Selena (Juliette Binoche) have been in a marriage long enough to be cheating on each other without feeling the guilt or the need to separate. For Selena, it is quite normal that a couple ceases to satisfy each other’s physical needs, but that also does not mean there is a dearth of love or companionship. Within this liminality, she is having an affair with Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), an author friend who Alain frequently publishes. Leonard writes “auto fiction” which is nothing but thinly veiled accounts of his own affairs and sexual escapades. Alain has an affair with a younger colleague, Laure (Christa Théret), who, ironically, heads the department of Digital Transition at his workplace. She loves e-books, book espresso machines that print books in under five minutes and has never seen an Ingmar Bergman film. The marriages and the cheating are barely the talking points of Non-Fiction’s debates — it is not a moral lecture on the sanctity of the institution but a rather long winded, inconclusive introspection on where art and literature are really headed irrespective of how they are disseminated. “An Adorno read off an iPad will still be the same Adorno who wrote the book,” Alain ruminates.
But Assayas is never the stuffy old man who looks down upon the younger, more digital generation. He embraces Laure’s disdain for existing modes of publishing and enters into a frank debate with her character on the need and viability to go digital. He makes sure that her love for the novel, for literature (her father was a novelist and poet), is always given the same importance as Alain’s love for books and Leonard’s love for writing books. It is a democratisation of sorts; an idea that everyone has the right to love the arts the way they want to.
The liminality of art, the supposed passing away of a generation to give way to another, is something Assayas has explored before, most recently in Clouds of Sils Maria where Binoche struggles with the idea of ageing and what it does to her art as an actor. In Non-Fiction, too, Selena is an actor who started out with theatre but is now essaying the role of a “Crisis Management Expert” (as opposed to a more basic “female cop”) in a long running TV series. While she does not particularly enjoy it, she has made peace with it and does not oppose it or debate it with a ferocity like Alain’s. This is a philosophy with which she also reads Leonard’s latest book where he has taken massive poetic liberties in discussing their sex life; she doesn’t quite like it but is appreciative of the author’s effort and his vulnerability that comes from baring his life in the pages of a book. Binoche — fresh off playing an ageing artist in Let the Sunshine In — is obviously amazing, but the radicality of her presence really goes beyond this film; her insistence on screen space through her inimitable style is an insistence that a middle aged female actor be seen and be appreciated. One is thankful for filmmakers like Assayas whose long association with women like Binoche has given us the opportunity to participate in this long standing struggle of depicting middle aged women on screen without them having to act young and ditsy.
Non-Fiction is definitely one of the more chattier Assayas films, and it is dotted with his amazing sense of humour; there are constant self-references, running gags and harmless ribbings at the bastions of culture the French and the rest of the world have built for itself. As an extremely funny self-reference, Selena suggests that Leonard should get his audiobook narrated by the “star” Juliette Binoche. In one scene, Alain is speaking to Laure, after spending a night with her, and likens himself and his evangelical defence of the book to the priest in Bergman’s Winter Light who keeps preaching to a town full of people who have lost their faith. Laure says she has not watched a single Bergman film! Imagine a world where a person who hasn’t seen a single Bergman is made to sell books! That is the world we live in, and Assayas seems to think that it’s alright. On the other hand, while describing his sexual escapades with Selena while watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens in his book, Leonard conveniently changes the film in question to Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon to appear more “chic.” There is doubt if he has ever watched the film. There are pretences both sides of this debate need to put on, and Assayas is seemingly supportive of that.
For a film about an eternal conflict, Non-Fiction is a strangely calming film. It quietly assures you that while a fight for permanence is natural, the need to change is also equally natural. It is an examination of quick value judgements we often ascribe to things and symbols in a world that is inherently impermanent and always in flux. It also an optimistic belief in the fact that the arts will always survive in some form or the other; that a good book will always make a good e-book and a great audiobook narrated by a great star!
Non-Fiction recently had its Canadian premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Bedatri Datta Choudhury (@Bedatri) grew up in India and has studied Literature and Cinema at the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and New York University. She moonlights as a writer and likes writing on films, gender and culture. She lives in New York City and loves eating cake.