Following the more esoteric but still pointed concerns of his last two films, Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, French auteur Olivier Assayas heads into surprisingly straightforward territory with Non-Fiction. The director takes an almost traditional approach in following the lives of two couples–a high-end book editor named Alain (Guillaume Canet) and his actress wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), along with novelist Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) and his political consultant partner Valerie (Nora Hamzawi)–as their lives entwine around each other both professionally and romantically.
As the film opens, Alain delivers the bad news to Leonard that he is not going to publish his new novel, the latest in a long line of thinly disguised roman à clefs about Leonard’s own affairs. What Alain doesn’t know — or perhaps he does–is that the relationship in the book is based on Leonard’s ongoing fling with Selena. This being Parisian literary bohemia, Alain of course is having an affair as well, with the young, ambitious marketing genius (Christa Theret) who wants to basically destroy Alain’s longstanding style of publishing and replace it with short, digital provocations ready made for social media.
At first, Non-Fiction plays almost as a sly parody of a French film, and one wonders if this is actually what Assayas is setting out to accomplish. The characters seem initially flippant and accepting of their partners’ extramarital activities, in that distinct French way, and a good chunk of the first hour is devoted to long conversations over bottles of wine about literature, reading (and the possible death of both), the internet and the cataclysmic changes the latter is wreaking on art and society.
Here is where Assayas runs into trouble: While he doesn’t take a particular stand either way, his cast’s lengthy ruminations on the changing literary and digital landscape come across as already hopelessly passé: yelling at clouds in 2013. Much of what they complain or debate about has already come to pass, and for a good portion of the film the cast, as excellent as they all are, are telling us things that many of us already know (books, good but outdated; e-books, not so good but convenient).
But then Non-Fiction switches from the social arena to the personal one, and the film begins to assess a deeper emotional tone, laced with refreshing instances of dry humor. The best sequence occurs when Alain and Selena arrive home after a long day and get into an extended conversation about Leonard’s novel. Selena pushes Alain to publish it, and as their exchange progresses into talk of the affair at the center of the book, you can see both of them dancing around what is right in front of their faces. Assayas almost perfectly captures the way that couples will avoid confronting an issue head-on, even if they’re not sure whether confrontation will bring catastrophe or relief.
The rest of Non-Fiction features a string of similar sequences, again fraught with emotional tension but peppered with wit, as well as an acidly amusing sequence in which Leonard is ambushed in a radio interview for a scene in his book that social media has deemed inappropriate.
Assayas handles all this with his usual taciturn, minimalist style, although Non-Fiction deploys perhaps a bit more music than his other films. Smooth editing and Yorick Le Saux’s expressive cinematography ensure that the film is lovely to look at, even with the rough going of its early scenes. Unusually, it also channels memories of Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters and Sidney Lumet’s Network, among other works, and its outright spoof of the cop show that Selena stars in evokes similar images from Clouds of Sils Maria. Non-Fiction may end up being considered one of Assayas’ “lighter” films, and its specificity about the social issues it addresses may date it rather too quickly. But his effortless ability to zero in on the inner workings of personal relationships remains intact, and that’s the truth.
Non-Fiction is out in theaters Friday (May 3).