You know when older generations talk about how crazy and revolutionary the Internet is because they just signed up for a Facebook account? That’s sort of similar to the experience of watching Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction, where a bunch of bougie book industry types sit around and worry about the future of our culture in the face of technology as if it hasn’t already been part and parcel with it for years.
Most of these conversations revolve around Alain (Guillaume Canet), a successful book publisher faced with having to change the entire way his company does things when a new digital marketing person (and millennial, of course, played by Christa Théret) is hired to implement new online strategies to sell titles. Meanwhile, author and notorious adulterer Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), whom Alain publishes, deals with backlash from online commenters who denounce his form of sordid “auto-fiction” as sexist and exploitative.
It’s natural for filmmakers to want to explore the changing dynamics of our society and the arts industries through the continued dominance of the online world. Assayas has plunged into this kind of thing previously in his virtual-porn corporate thriller Demonlover back in 2002. But where that film was a radical and bizarre look at the lack of taboos or boundaries of any kind in the digital sphere, arriving at a time when the Internet was really coming into its own, Non-Fiction takes a more traditionally French New Wave approach, with the characters’ dialogue acting as a thinly veiled lecture revealing how lost boomers and Gen-Xers feel in this rapidly evolving online-dependent world. This sounds intriguing in theory, but all the talk of e-books and smartphones and Twitter becoming “the new form of writing” frankly just evokes eye rolls if you’re even the slightest bit tech savvy.
To be fair, this isn’t all that Non-Fiction focuses on, as Assayas builds a Woody Allen-esque marital farce as well. All of the principal characters are having affairs with one another and Assayas creates a good deal of humour out of his character’s dalliances (including a running joke about a sexual encounter at a screening of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon that has surprising longevity). The laissez-faire attitude towards the characters’ infidelity is the more refreshing aspect of Non-Fiction, suggesting that among this bored upper-class world, it’s just part of a healthy long-term marriage.
Assayas also continues the probe into modern celebrity culture that he began with Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper through Juliette Binoche’s character Selena, Alain’s wife and a notable actress who remains ambivalent about her participation in a popular but generic television police procedural. But he doesn’t have much new to say about that either, trading in the moody landscapes and trenchant character analysis of those previous films for more obvious commentary about the current state of TV binge-watching and a series of meta-jokes that just inspire groans.
And yet, through all this, Non-Fiction is still a highly watchable trifle, in large part due to the veteran cast and their ability to imbue the didactic dialogue with a pleasant naturalism. Ultimately it’s a minor work for Assayas, who has shown us so much brilliance throughout his 30+ year career that we come to expect it every time, even when it’s clear he’s just goofing around with his friends.
Now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox
- Release Date: 5/10/2019