When is there too much of a good thing? This question looms over Olivier Assayas’s exhaustively intelligent Non-Fiction, a zeitgeist-targeted ensemble comedy stuffed with so many statements about the Way We Live Now that we can hardly be expected to process them all. Assayas’ script is like a torrent of Snapchat missives that disappear into the nether, to be replaced by the next deft allusion or sociological musing or cutting bon mot, and we’re lucky if we retain a fraction of them.
Non-Fiction is set in a cloistered, aspirational crust of Paris’ high-society intelligentsia, with its informal salon discussions and wine-filled working lunches. Every character is a college-educated fount of eloquently delivered insights.
There’s Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), a mopey novelist specializing in controversial, Karl Ove Knausgård-style autofiction, whose new book is an embellishment of his latest extramarital exploits. Léonard is married to Valerie (Nora Hamzawi), who works for the campaign of a striving socialist politician, but he’s sleeping with Selena (Juliette Binoche), the actress wife of his editor, Alain (Guillaume Canet). Alain, meanwhile, is enjoying an affair of his own, with Laure (Christa Théret), a millennial firebrand whose job title at Alain’s publishing house, Head of Digital Transition, will elicit a knowing shudder from any media professional over 35.
And that’s the thing: For all of its chic (and very French) infidelities, the characters’ sexual rendezvous matter less than its backdrop of a publishing industry in an existential crisis. Laure is a doom harbinger stalking the halls of Alain’s revered business, making the unsentimental case for print media’s obsolescence, and advocating a complete digital takeover. She argues that algorithms now have more influence on public opinion than critics. (I winced at that one, because it is true, of course). Libraries, she says, have become repositories for homeless people seeking free Wi-Fi, and bluehairs who enjoy their community “seed swaps.”
There are voluminous discussions of the literary paradox of social media, where more humans are writing than ever before, but fewer books are being consumed. “More people read my blog than my books,” says one of Alain’s colleagues, in a tone of matter-of-fact acceptance that a once-towering dinosaur like Léonard will never abide, at his encroaching peril.
And what about e-books, forecast a decade ago to be the digital saving grace of the publishing house? Sales have plummeted, says Alain’s boss, who is considering selling the company. Audiobooks read by celebrities are the new literary fashion, but for how long?
And so it goes, on and on and on. There are cerebral debates about politics as a cynical triumph of perception over policy, and of curated news streams that reinforce our biases, and blah blah blah. Assayas explores the way American political memes have become globalized in ways that feel more like writerly preciousness than natural, cross-cultural pollination: The disposable crime drama in which Selena stars as a “crisis management expert” is titled Collusion, and when Alain hears a rumor that his business is soon to be sold, he dismisses it as so much “fake news.”
Assayas is far from the first French auteur to make relentlessly talky pictures. Eric Rohmer’s conflicted intellectuals never shut up, and Non-Fiction feels, at times, like one of those self-reflexive Jacques Rivette films that could sprawl on for four or five hours.
But there’s a level of smug satisfaction in Non-Fiction that suggests, for all its probing insights on high culture in 2019, that it’s a big put-on. Assayas has been experimenting with metafictional tropes from as far back as 1996’s Irma Vep, but it’s not until the final scene of Non-Fiction that he reveals his cards, with a deliberately false ending that transparently gives an escapist audience what it wants, followed by musical selection so incoherent to the rest of the movie that it qualifies as Dadaist.
A film that is too smart and cheeky for its own good is always preferable to a product that has nothing to say. But Non-Fiction feels like a setback after the director’s recent run of elusive masterpieces in Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper. Supple yet seismic, these films abounded in mystery, begging multiple viewings and interpretations. The hip logorrhea of Non-Fiction leaves little to the imagination.
NON-FICTION (DOUBLES VIES). Director: Olivier Assayas; Cast: Guillaume Canet, Juliette Binoche, Vincent Macaigne, Christa Théret, Nora Hamzawi; in French with English subtitles; Distributor: IFC; Not Rated; Opens Friday at Living Room Theaters at FAU Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton, the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale, Regal South Beach 18 and the Coral Gables Art Cinema.