Cinema Review: Non-Fiction | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, October 14th, 2019  

Non-Fiction

Studio: Sundance Selects
Directed by Olivier Assayas

May 01, 2019 Web Exclusive
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Olivier Assayas needed to get something off his chest. A lot of things, it turns out.

Assayas’ newest film, Non-Fiction, is an overly didactic diatribe about how technology encroaches on art – mostly literature, in this instance – and what it means for the artistic landscape going forward. It’s also a comedy!

The film opens with novelist Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) meeting with his publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet) about his latest manuscript. Leonard has developed a reputation for thinly veiling his real-life exploits, especially his various affairs, in his work. It ruined his previous marriage and could wreak havoc on his current one. Alain expresses reservations about the new work, and insinuates that he is not going to publish this entry, which Leonard doesn’t pick up on until he comes out and asks.

Meanwhile, Alain is having an affair with a young co-worker named Laure (Christa Theret) and Leonard is having his latest extra-marital fling with Alain’s actress wife Selene (Juliette Binoche) behind the back of wife Valerie (Nora Hamzawi). After rejecting Leonard’s manuscript, Alain returns home for a dinner party where the world of writing is discussed at length. One man, a novelist, reveals that his blog gets more readers than his books – five thousand per day – and that he believes the future of writing is online. Selene rejects this outright, arguing in favor of the tactile, but is rebuffed by the rest of the party. They lament the waning reading habits of the young generation – oh, those damned Millenials – as threatening to make new literature obsolete.

Laure represents this change in the form of a person. She is print’s angel of death, working to digitize the publishing house’s properties while recommending new forms of literature like collections of tweets akin to the act of publishing an author’s correspondence. “Writing is writing” seems to be the mantra.

Assayas’ intent, at first, appears to be sneering at this way of thinking. Naturally, this is an underestimation and could easily be a projection. Because even if Assayas personally views this trend as off-putting, there is a sincere acknowledgement that the landscape is changing and that it has to in order to survive. What first feels like cynicism later feels more like grappling with an uncomfortable reality.

Leonard, distraught from his book’s rejection, takes part in a signing of a previous novel. At the Q&A, he gets ambushed with questions about ownership of the material within his stories. His ex-wife has been publicly furious with him writing about her, albeit pseudonymously, and revealing details about their personal life and possibly the affairs that wrecked their marital harmony. Two sides are represented here: the first is that she has the right to her own story and that when it’s used by Leonard, ownership has been transferred. She could write it her own way, but it would be a rehash. To Leonard, he should have the right to draw from his own subjective experiences without reproach. No answers are given, but it raises an interesting question about how much should a creative force be allowed to borrow from life, especially moments involving others’ privacy, in their work, especially if it then becomes for sale. Leonard is, after all, making a living off these experiences however humble it may be. He says early that he’d be on welfare if it wasn’t for Valerie’s job working for a political candidate.

Non-Fiction is at its best when it is merely asking questions about the nature of art, its future, and what the lines are in using reality to inspire fiction. And while characters present answers, none feel all that steady. Even Laure, who is steadfast in her commitment to digital, isn’t depicted as being short-sighted or the bringer of truths. It’s apparent that at some point, something new will come along to challenge her worldview.

And it’s very funny in places, though a bit too dry in others (depending on taste, obviously). There is a fantastic moment in the final scenes with a joke that lands perfectly, casting a self-referential jab proving that none of the cynicism present in the film should be taken all that seriously. But the biggest problem lies with the use of affairs as a source of conflict. These beats feel more arbitrary despite Leonard’s penchant for creating chaos in his personal life to fuel his writing. Assayas’ writing in these scenes feels like it’s on autopilot, even though it does result in one of the funnier scenes between Leonard and Selene in a café after his new book finally gets published. The affair doesn’t need to be retired as a plot point, but it often feels like an easy way to generate pathos, and this is a prime example of that.

Non-Fiction is like the dinner party conversations it depicts, for better and worse.

Author rating: 6.5/10

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