One of the recurring themes of Olivier Assayas’s filmography is the way that people’s possessions and artistic tastes reveal something of their personality and even family history. Non-Fiction, set in the realm of 21st-century book publishing, is the director’s most explicit treatise on this theme since Summer Hours. Alain (Guillaume Canet), the editor of a small publishing house, has extended debates with colleagues and relatives about the shifting nature of the book industry as e-books grow to an even bigger share of the total market. He ambivalently acknowledges the pros and cons of this new reality, while his wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche), vociferously condemns our world of intangible assets. Embedded in her rants is the thinly veiled complaint that art doesn’t feel as real when you can carry an entire collection in your pocket, which strips books and music of their meaning.
This debate recurs in several permutations throughout Non-Fiction, with several degrees of comedic pretentiousness. The film’s first scene sees Alain delicately dancing around rejecting a manuscript by Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), an old friend and staple of the publishing house. As Alain gently voices his misgivings about the book and its regressive sexual vindictiveness, Léonard deflects with broad misgivings about the narcissism of the young generation and the inanity of people preferring blogs to literature. Elsewhere, Alain, who frequently defends the profitability and validity of digital books, snaps at the sheer unpredictability of the market where e-books, audiobooks, and physical media slide in and out of prominence without warning, defying any effort to predict long-term mass-market format popularity.
Amid discussions of the fickle nature of readers, Alain and the rest of Non-Fiction‘s primary characters engage in trysts among their small friend group. Assayas stacks everyone’s heated intellectual rhetoric about a dumbed-down modern age against the petulant selfishness of their affairs, amusingly poking holes in their inflated self-regard. Characters radiate insecurity about their jobs, from Alain fretting over the future of books to Selena, an actress, self-consciously downplaying the praise she receives about her role as a “crisis management expert” on a hit TV series that she finds tacky and simplistic. Everyone spends much of their time lobbing compliments, backhanded and otherwise, at others and deflecting the ones aimed at them, and much of the film’s dialogue consists of passive-aggressive sniping.
All this banter is best delivered by and at the expense of Léonard. With his mad tangle of thinning hair and emotionally stunted worldview, the author looks nothing short of buffoonish, particularly when he’s grilled by interviewers and readers over the misogyny of his work and his tendency to write all of his novels as transparent romans à clef directed at the lovers he feels did him wrong by leaving him. The man carries on an affair that seems to provide him not only sexual satisfaction, but the emotional support of someone willing to indulge his narcissistic, self-justifying rants. Certainly he doesn’t get that support from his wife, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), who hilariously shreds her husband’s ego at every turn by broadly agreeing with the criticisms thrown at his work and ignoring his childish pleas for attention.
Non-Fiction is at its finest when these more acidic moments bluntly confront characters’ myopic behaviors, but it ultimately falls back into its default mode of arguing at length about how the appreciation of art is affected by the format of its representation. This topic has intriguing potential as a jumping-off point for knotty relationship comedy, a means of taking jabs at characters for how their artistic pretensions color their interpersonal relationships. But the repetitious arguments about art too often exist at a remove from the film’s more amusing depiction of its characters’ amorous woes. Never has Assayas so thoroughly belabored his ideas, and he drains the film of the playfulness at its margins, leaving only an esoteric lecture in its place.