Most of the entrenched cinephiles and filmmakers who continue to insist on celluloid are priggish, elitist pedants. Their purity is an affectation they wear to show off that they know enough to do so and can afford it. One name that doesn’t seem to come up much on that list is Olivier Assayas, despite the fact that he is not only one of the all time great film directors (whom we are lucky to have working today) but is also a dedicated shooter of actual film. His latest, the brilliant and sneakily transcendent Non-Fiction employs soft, fuzzy 16mm to evoke the plush but weathered, wabasabi aesthetic of the moneyed literati among which it is set.
Non-Fiction is the story, as much as that’s what it is, of two Parisian couples and their intertwining lives. Alain (Guillaume Canet) owns a small and prestigious but struggling publishing firm; his wife is Selena (Juliette Binoche), an actress who leads a long-running, popular crime thriller television series. An author, Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), is trying to convince Alain to publish his newest book, which happens to feature lightly fictionalized accounts of Leonard’s personal life, including his ongoing affair with Selena. Alain and Leonard’s wife, Valerie (Nora Hamzawi) don’t seem to notice, though. Perhaps that’s because the latter is too wrapped up in her job on a progressive political campaign and the former is having an affair of his own, with Laure (Christa Theret), the young woman he’s just hired to oversee his firm’s “digital transition.”
Non-Fiction is not just about the literary world, it’s a part of it, particularly in the way it assumes its audience has the same intellectual and cultural touchstones as its characters or, at least, it doesn’t care if they do or not. It’s also incredibly talky; Eric Rohmer is the most obvious but still the best analogue.
As for what they talk about, Assayas’ screenplay is very of the moment in its appraisal of the ways in which the world’s relationship to reading and writing is changing. Yet it is also, pointedly, about the same kinds of topics people who care about these things always talk about. Literacy is always failing in the eyes of those who have slipped out of the academic zeitgeist or fear they have. But, as Laure argues by comparing tweets to haikus, literacy is actually just adapting, being reborn so that the next generation can continue to argue about stuff like the imbalance of art and commerce without things getting too stale.
Assayas is, of course, asking us to laugh a bit at this milieu’s lack of self-awareness despite their intense self-regard but he’s not inviting us to mock them. He, after all, is one of them, or would like to be, if the references to filmmakers like Visconti and Bergman alongside all those classics and poems are any indication. Still, it works; Non-Fiction is probably the funniest movie of Assayas’ career, a kind of Woody Allen riff that will certainly be the only film to attempt and succeed crafting a running gag that involves both Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon.
Yet there’s melancholy to Non-Fiction as well. Even if “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same,” as Laure quotes from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (yeah, I had to look that up), those changes will have fallout. There will be casualties due to shifting economic needs or just an inability to pivot. Their way of life will become like another running bit in Non-Fiction, in which characters are constantly stepping outside to smoke but never finishing their cigarettes; a dying habit done perfunctorily.