THE ACADÉMIE FRANÇAISE, that venerable body of forty “immortal” academicians charged with policing the French language to prevent the infiltration of Anglo-Saxon words and Gallic neologisms, has been in the news lately because of its inability to fill four of its seats—prized positions that Balzac, Zola, and Verlaine once pursued and were denied. Olivier Assayas, whose own passionate concern with the preservation of French culture is evident again in his new film, Non-Fiction, would recognize the académie’s crisis as the ancien régime succumbing to the inexorable advance of modernity. Ironically, the immortels would no doubt be appalled by Non-Fiction (originally released in French as Doubles vies), whose copious dialogue teems with the terms of social media and digital delivery systems, most of them American in origin—Google, Facebook, Twitter, e-book, iPhone, Amazon Prime, Kindle, audiobook, tablet—and with Anglo expressions of emotion: up, down, feel-good, feel-bad. In both his films and interviews, Assayas has professed allegiance to canonical traditions—“I have a deep respect for the culture I come from, for classic European art and literature,” he stated a decade ago—but as his many forays into genre filmmaking have shown, the director is also avidly contemporary in temperament. That Assayas casts Non-Fiction, a film of ideas about the hazards of cyberculture, as a Marivauxian farce of amorous folly illustrates this very tension between modern dilemmas and traditional forms.
A satire of the French publishing world, Non-Fiction rather too neatly imbricates the lives of two couples to explore the perils of infidelity. Alain (Guillaume Canet), a middle-aged editor at an august Parisian publishing house obviously modeled on Gallimard or Grasset, is married to actress Selena (Juliette Binoche), who has abandoned the stage to play a cop in a popular television series called Collusion. She is having an affair with one of Alain’s writers, Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), who specializes in autofiction, an ethically dubious form of literature that turns people in his life into thinly disguised characters. His romans require not just one clef, but pendulous key chains full. Assayas gently mocks Léonard’s partner, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), the parliamentary aide to a socialist (and closeted gay) politician, who totes a tablet and three phones but demands that her mate put his phone away for a “device-free night.” Less cynical than the other three, virtuously committed to idealistic politics, and the only one of the quartet not cheating on her spouse, Valérie is also the sole character in the film to utter the phrase “Je t’aime” and movingly mean it. Alain matches his wife’s infidelity with his own, taking up with Laure (Christa Théret), a young woman he has hired to be the director of “digital transition” for his company as it faces the challenges of virtual, self-printed, and electronic editions. Alain accuses Laure of having a “one-track digital mind,” and indeed, she is a terrifying enforcer of cybersuperiority who believes that the internet has ushered in a democratic utopia, claims that algorithms will soon replace “smug critics,” and tiresomely observes that tweets are the modern equivalent of haikus. One is reminded of Madame Arpel’s trilling injunction in Jacques Tati’s Mon oncle (My Uncle, 1958), “You must get used to these things! You must be modern!”—though Laure would be incapable of such innocent wonder.
Airily intelligent but rarely profound, Non-Fiction immediately reveals Assayas’s gift for stinging social portraiture in its opening sequence. Alain and Léonard meet for lunch to discuss the latter’s latest manuscript, Point final (Full Stop), which he expects Alain to publish, as he has all of his previous novels. Selena’s husband and her lover could not be more different in both nature and comportment. Lean, close-cropped, and crisply turned out, the urbane Alain may be a stand-in for the similarly elegant Assayas, while Léonard, with his thinning, disheveled hair, unkempt beard, and flaccid body appears oblivious to the niceties of bourgeois grooming. Even their lunch choices seem to reflect that essential contrast: Alain has his usual, an austere “rare entrecote, salad, and still water,” while Léonard indulges in a terrine and turbot aioli, though he unexpectedly forgoes wine. Brilliantly scripted and shot, their ensuing exchange becomes an excruciating exercise in artful evasion, as Alain nervously toys with his glass and bottle of Vittel while avoiding Léonard’s every volley of sheepish solicitude and anxious inquiry about the fate of his manuscript. The pained editor responds with vague praise and veiled plaint—that the novelist is repeating himself or courting inconsequence. In one of the best-timed edits in this superbly cut film—some of the guillotine cuts recall Robert Bresson’s—the men’s fraught conversation ends abruptly just as Alain informs the disbelieving Léonard that he has no intention of publishing Point final.
Non-Fiction’s many debates about, and discourses on, the dematerialization of culture in the digital age; the threat to literacy, community, and expertise posed by the internet; and the impossibility of ideals and authenticity in a post-truth era threaten to turn Assayas’s work into a film à thèse. His dialogue, certainly, qualifies as what the French call marivaudage, more for its sheer verbosity than for its affected style. Many of the exchanges are a little banal or stale, and jokes, such as one about Selena’s flic character being euphemistically called a “crisis-management expert,” are run a little ragged. (Another, about Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon , gets quite a workout, and when a wisecrack is later made about Thomas Bernhard’s last novel, Extinction , one wonders what these Parisians have about Austrian artists.) In its concern with disappearing cultural traditions—here, the threatened publishing house whose noble past extends over a century—Non-Fiction forms a loose, no doubt inadvertent trilogy with Assayas’s Les destinées sentimentales (Sentimental Destinies, 2000) and L’heure d’été (Summer Hours, 2008), both of which address how personal and cultural history inheres in objects (Limoges porcelain in the first, a matriarch’s antique collection of objets d’art and furniture in the latter).
That Assayas casts Non-Fiction, a film of ideas about the hazards of cyberculture, as a Marivauxian farce of amorous folly illustrates the tension between modern dilemmas and traditional forms.
“I am a great admirer of Éric Rohmer,” Assayas recently stated, “and the light that guided me was his movie The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque , a comedy that dealt with some of the debates going on within French society at the time. When I was writing Non-Fiction, it was the only thing that gave me the notion that maybe I was heading in the right direction.” Assayas’s restless visual style may depart from Rohmer’s—he scrutinizes his characters with almost imperceptible dollies, whereas Rohmer often pinioned his characters in the frame with slow, discreet zooms, prodding them to disclose their inner beings—but Assayas’s loquacious types certainly recall the inhabitants of Rohmer’s wordy universe. (That Assayas also admires the boulevardier Sacha Guitry, whose plays and films often feature rapid, exhausting dialogue, suggests a second model for Non-Fiction’s logorrhea.) It is perhaps characteristic of the cinephile Assayas to have been inspired by one of Rohmer’s least-known films, but it’s easy to see the parallels between The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque and Non-Fiction. Addressing the conflict between modernity (in the form of a high-end media-and-arts center the socialist mayor of a rural village wants to build in an open field) and tradition (in the personage of a local environmentalist who opposes this incursion from Paris), Rohmer’s movie also deals with media culture, featuring a novelist and a journalist from the city who comment on the political fracas the médiathèque incites. Assayas pays direct homage to Rohmer’s film by casting Pascal Greggory, who played the eponymous mayor, as the CEO of Alain’s company, who is contemplating its sale to a louche digital entrepreneur.
Assayas maintains that his attitude toward both sides of the debate in Non-Fiction is strictly nonjudgmental: “I identify with all of them, including the idiots. There is not a single character that I can’t relate to. I understand what they are saying and why, and in a way, they all have a point.” However, there are various ways he tips his pro-analogue hand, from his decision to shoot in Super 16 for its grain and realism to his casting of Guillaume Canet as Alain, a sort of alter ego who shares Assayas’s ambiguous attitude toward the digital age, i.e., an acceptance of its inevitability chastened with an anxiety about its deforming force. Mostly, though, the director vilifies the smugness of Laure, a figure who is readily familiar from Rohmer’s cinema: the itinerant, variable character who moves from place to place, job to job, lover to lover, and who represents in Rohmer’s ultraconservative world a dangerous inconstancy. Assayas signals his mistrust of Laure’s character in a couple of key moments in which she reveals her cultural ignorance. In the first, when Alain asks her if she has seen Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963), she blithely admits that she has never seen a single Bergman film. Assayas deifies Bergman, so the criticism is both implicit and severe. In another, Laure invokes the famous quote from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958) about historical change, but gets the speaker doubly wrong, citing “Prince Salina,” when it is the Prince of Salina she means, and the line is actually delivered by Tancredi Falconeri, not the change-averse prince; she also greatly mislocates the quote, which comes not at the end of the novel, as she claims, but early on. Like Rohmer’s hazardous nomads, Laure moves between places, positions, and partners with careless ease: Assayas moralistically treats her bisexuality, like her globalist ambitions, as a signifier of duplicity, the very opposite of Valérie’s commitment, fidelity, and maternalism.
Classically filmed, with many traditional shot-countershot setups and old-fashioned blackout dissolves, Non-Fiction appends an italicized “happy” ending that is more smarmy than charming. (By contrast, Rohmer’s similar seaside coda in Ma nuit chez Maud [My Night at Maud’s, 1968] provides a plaintive drama of regret.) For a work of scrupulously detailed social description, Non-Fiction also tests credulity in details both small—would Alain and Selena really have such a young child, whom the script treats as a handy prop?—and glaring: How could the TV-famous actress who admits that people often recognize her on the street carry on a six-year affair in the bistros and bars of Paris? Laure might argue that these are merely the quibbles of the “smug critic” she would wish into extinction, preferring the expertise of an algorithm.
Non-Fiction opens May 3 in New York and May 10 in Los Angeles.
James Quandt is Senior Programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.
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