They say that the year’s biggest films are critic-proof. What’s the proof of even reviewing Avengers: Endgame when it’s abundantly clear that scores of MCU fans will buy a ticket? I kind of feel that way about Non-Fiction, a gentle film from Olivier Assayas. Audiences will either tune into its frequency, or they won’t. This film is extremely French, in the sense that the characters get more worked up over intellectual debate, and not who is having an affair with who. In the strictest sense, this film is a comedy. There are funny lines, and Assayas affectionately satirizes his characters. In a broader sense however, this is an anthropological sketch. You may not know a single word of French, but you’ve probably been to a dinner party like the ones in this film.
The film’s title a cheeky misnomer since the main character is a novelist. Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) has some success with a form he calls “auto-fiction.” His characters are clearly based on public figures, and his audience likes to play the game of who they’re meant to resemble. He’s sort of like Karl Ove Knausgård, except slightly less self-involved. Leonard is having an affair with Selena (Juliette Binoche), a TV actress, which is complicated since Selena’s husband also happens to be Leonard’s editor Alain (Guillaume Canet). Assayas follows these characters through restaurants, cafes, and literary conferences, listening to how they argue about culture and the publishing industry. If there is a plot, no one seems in too much of a hurry to get there.
Debate is what defines most of the film. What is strange is how Assayas’ characters are about five years too late in what they’re saying. There is a lengthy argument about the virtues of e-readers versus hard copies, and who even reads literature anymore. Alain’s lover is his employee Laure (Christa Théret), and she has radical ideas of about the virtue of all culture being digitized online. Part of me wanted to butt into their conversations with, “Who decides what gets digitized? And what happens to the authors whose work doesn’t make the cut?” That desire is part of the film’s fun. Assayas’ uses an unobtrusive style, with few cuts or music cues, so Non-Fiction unfolds like you’re a participant, not an observer.
Assays is patient with his set-ups, to the point they hardly feel like set-ups. There is a key plot point that involves seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The White Ribbon, along with who can remember the details about either film. Part of the joke is that these disparate films are under discussion, so the charm is how Assayas also draws from real-life. At one point, there is even a meta quality to the humor: the characters discuss the actors they are playing. But this is an observational comedy, not Ocean’s 12, so the approach is too understated to be audacious.
No one in Non-Fiction is trying all that hard, and that is sort of the point. Maybe they did this film on a lark, as a placeholder in between more challenging, serious projects. Canet and Binoche are naturals for this kind of material, while the relatively unknown Macaigne convincingly threads the needle between an intellectual heavyweight and a sad sack. Not much gets answered in Non-Fiction: the characters end up where they started, more or less, and they are too narcissistic to risk losing anything important in their lives.
Whether such an existence is decadent or depraved depends entirely on whether you enjoy these people. I found them endearingly snobby, sort of like that friend who says ridiculous things, but has a point you hadn’t considered. Filmmaking craft is almost immaterial to your enjoyment here, so it’s best to think of Non-Fiction as an experiment with your movie-going companion to see what you will tolerate. If you end up completely disagreeing, then that’s also part of the fun. Just follow the example from these characters and don’t take it too personally.