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Fewer Readers, More Tensions


Olivier Assayas’s latest film holds on to the old world while recognizing the new

Discussed in this essay:

Non-Fiction, directed by Olivier Assayas. IFC Films. 108 minutes.

non-fiction assayas

A still from Non-Fiction (2019)

The idea that all things digital will replace all things analog is possibly the world’s most successful meme; it gets repeated every day, unquestioningly, even by people who have no real understanding of technology. (Without the burden of such knowledge, you can be confident that Wi-Fi–enabled refrigerators and “the sharing economy” are proof of the forward march of history, and are not, say, inevitabilities of a highly unequal, hypernormalized economic system.) Non-Fiction, Olivier Assayas’s fifteenth feature film, takes the notion of this digital subsumption as its central concern, weaving Panglossian and skeptical views of the computerized into a light sex comedy. Through its many scenes of people simply talking to each other, Non-Fiction nimbly encompasses the broad range of connection modern life holds, and considers what is novel (and what is not so new) about our cultural moment—or, more accurately, the moment we found ourselves in shortly before its script was finished.

Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet), is the head of Vertheuil Editions, a prestigious hundred-year-old publishing house, and trying to avoid being felled by fashion or obsolescence. Vertheuil Editions’s head of digital transition is Laure Angerville (Christa Théret), a young woman whose energy, single-minded surety, and aggressive careerism echoes Faye Dunaway’s character in Network; and, like in Network, Alain first has sex with Laure during a work trip not simply because she’s an attractive blonde who’s always got a comeback, but because she’s right there. Alain’s wife Selena (Juliette Binoche) is a former stage actress who plays a “crisis management expert” on Collusion, an indistinctive detective show that features more bullets than dialogue. (At a party in the country home of Vertheuil Editions’s owner, a guest accidentally calls it “Collision,” a testament to its genericness.) Selena’s been having a long-term affair with Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), a perpetually disheveled novelist whose (too) thinly veiled autobiographical “fictions” have made him unpopular with the online literati and interviewers; her motivation for screwing around with a man who’s younger and paunchier than her husband are less transparently related to availability. Rounding out this My Night at Maud’s quintet is Léonard’s current wife, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), an an overworked aide with three cell phones who works for an idealistic but closeted politician. Despite being the most scrupulous, digitally subsumed character, she never comes off as a scold or victim, and allows the film to resolve on the cautiously hopeful note of a baby on the way.

Valerie’s fundamental good-naturedness also gives some credibility to Léonard, who divides his time between recording every aspect of his life, loudly performing some literary bad boy schtick that’s at least twenty years out of date, wallowing in self-pity, and bungling his public appearances. Though extracts of his latest novel, Point final (“Period”), are never read aloud, the pieces of information given are evocative, and provide narrative information: aside from the not-actually-provocative title, Valérie is renamed “Oriane,” no doubt a reference to Oriane de Guermantes, the wife of a philandering duke in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (connecting Léonard’s life and work to the classic), and Selena is renamed Xenia, but is given the characteristics of Stephanie Volkofski, a real (in the film) TV talk show host (a diversionary tactic, mixing low with the aforementioned high). A portion of the book’s “life”—completion, physical publication, the start of a press tour—serves as the narrative’s spine. When Alain and Léonard meet for lunch to discuss Point final, the latter grandstands about the materialism and superficiality of our era. Alain—who knows Valérie is Oriane but buys the Stephanie Volkofski thing hook, line, and sinker—informs Léonard that his “radicality is no less narcissistic” than the superficiality he sees elsewhere. Yet, this is the closest Alain comes to an outburst. Throughout their exchange, Macaigne plays Léonard with an agitation that’s common among men who suffer a pathological need to be liked—the author knows that, before any critics or algorithms or online mobs, he must bend his ego to Alain’s, no matter how intimately they might be connected now or in the past. Alain, by contrast, appears not calm but weary—it’s not the PC police and lawyers who have gotten to the man, but an author who thinks he’s good enough to get away with doing the same thing over and over. The next morning, Léonard complains about Alain’s rejection of his novel to Valerie while wearing a T-shirt with Kurt Cobain’s picture on it, another tiny but sumptuous detail that suggests an overgrown Gen Xer who can’t believe he’s old now.

Though Selena doesn’t spend nearly as much time preoccupied with her own problems as her side piece does, she exudes a similarly unglamorous, analog aesthetic despite being an actress (and La Binoche in real life): her makeup is minimal to nonexistent, her clothes unisex and baggy. Like Léonard, she has an oversized distaste for the digital and the recently developed, and adds an edge to the breezy little get-togethers she attends with her husband where ideas about the Future are batted around, noting that people who have $1500 for a computer and monthly cable internet fees are also unwilling to pay for art. (Nobody in the room suggests that these culture-killers might not have any cash left after all of that.) It’s Selena who advocates on behalf of Point final to Alain, arguing that she interpreted the blow job scene set at a screening of The White Ribbon (based on a blow job she gave Léonard during Star Wars: The Force Awakens) as being about a woman who enjoys being debased, and that Léonard’s view of women at large isn’t demeaning. Given Selena’s forceful personality, it seems implausible that the dynamic was based on real life; yet, her relationship to Léonard changes shortly after she secures publication for Point final, which suggests that her husband’s interpretation of her affair struck a chord.

Discussion of Léonard’s White Ribbon scene gets a lot of mileage (and, after a certain point, wears out its humor even as a source of outrage), but there isn’t any actual sex shown in Non-Fiction itself: a knock at a hotel door and a suggestive caress are inevitably followed by a fade to black, consigned to one of Assayas’s ellipses. Instead, the pleasures of the flesh seem to have been replaced by the anxiety of what the age of screens hath wrought. As someone who has been a Laure—a millennial woman, nearly always the only person fitting into either category in the room, who has been tasked with leading a digital something-or-other for skeptical superiors—I found her unquestioning tech optimism a little too easy to swat away, especially when the retorts are coming from a suave, cultured, middle-aged man who’s clearly a stand-in for the director. (The only person who ever told me “digital is the future” with a straight face was a middle-aged consultant who never delivered what he was hired to create; perhaps he was too preoccupied with the future to focus on the task at hand.)

Assayas, who explored similar themes of resistance to change in Clouds of Sils Maria, never really gets to the why of any of these monumental changes. The sumptuous setting for their debates about fictionality, writerly ethics, and how (or if) the digital will destroy all that’s come before it—expansive Parisian apartments and plush country homes—are luxuries that the overwhelming majority of digital-heavy users can’t partake in, not because millennials are philistines, but because they’ve never been options for us the way they were for previous generations. (Not simply because of the fallout of a financial crisis, but because those spaces are still occupied by elder generations—everyone’s living longer, and the job and housing markets haven’t changed accordingly.) Despite all of its verbosity, Non-Fiction only gestures at the obvious: technology changes much, much faster than culture, and perhaps “the old way” is to try and make these two very different things sync up. The vastness of publishing—which requires editors, subeditors, copy editors, fact-checkers, marketers, etc., etc.—cannot be sustained when digital success is measured not by dollars, but by the ephemeral (page views, likes, RTs). Such things do not generate country homes, and they never will. The importance placed on such metrics is voluntary, largely assigned by the Alains of the world, precisely because they don’t understand them. It’s great to know how many people read something, and how long it takes them to do so—once invisible facts. But they give no insights into what, if anything, the text being read means to the person reading it. The mindlessness of poking around social media—while bored, anxious, hungry, killing time—isn’t new, but it also isn’t analogous to watching Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (which Laure confesses to Alain she’s never seen).

While Assayas may not have as strong a grasp on the digital as he might believe (such as when Alain tells Léonard that trading witticism and bad jokes on Twitter is “very French,” a very well-worn observation at this point), he more than makes up for it with cinematic grace and humor, a counterbalance to the seriousness of these debates. The director creates a sense of the classical—just as Rohmer and Truffaut’s films were drawing from the spatial and narrative lessons they learned from screwball comedies—and shies away from television’s reliance on rapid cutting, close-ups, and extreme close-ups, preferring instead to bask in the sumptuousness of these locales. In this way, the mise en scène becomes less a pornography of wealth than a reminder of what can be pleasurable about the way things are now: walls lined with books, slouchy cardigans, friends, enemies, sweets and wine after dinner. In their final exchange, Laure misattributes a line from The Leopard: “Everything must change for things to stay as they are.” (It seems that Google might’ve wrecked her ability to remember such things perfectly.) Though she doesn’t say whether she read Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s book or watched Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation, she seems to have gathered the right message from it, one that is comforting no matter the era, or the extent of the imminent change.

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