Full disclosure: as a turtleneck-wearing, Gustave Flaubert-loving New Yorker who wishes he were still living in the 1970s—I am unabashedly the target audience for a film like Olivier Assayas’ NON-FICTION. This is to say, a film shot on grainy 16mm in which four intellectuals (some with whom you will strain to find sympathy) endlessly discuss life, love, and the regretful death of print media for two hours across beautifully furnished French living rooms, is precisely my cup of tea. If that sounds boring to you, then it probably is, and there’s no need to keep reading my review, because you’re going to hate it. But for like-minded individuals, welcome to your ENDGAME—but this time, superheroes have been replaced by a very polite gaggle of book-loving nerds.
Maybe that means this isn’t a very good film, as it possibly serves as a more topical essay in the filmic medium than compelling example of three-act structure or emotional character study. Though there are some interesting relationship details at play—in particular the discussion of a blowjob during a screening of THE FORCE AWAKENS (how French). But for me, the film serves as a confirmation bias for those who lament the fact that print media is dying, one where I unabashedly nodded at every aphorism.
This is ultimately to say that I loved watching NON-FICTION, but I can also laugh at myself for so passionately doing so if some other more objective (and some might say cynical) intellectual viewers who fully understand what Assayas is going for still find it trite. I’m really not sure if the dialogue qualifies as Social-Media-Age Socratic Dialogue, or simply on-the-nose. It should also probably come with an MPAA rating restricting people under 40 (except for my embarrassingly out-of-touch 25-year-old self) for fear of scaring those younger with the idea of what a novel even is. Nonetheless, if the fact that a film is providing this much discussion beyond mere mention of the plot (the respite of the lazy film critic), then you probably should go see it. And see it on a large screen before it comes to Amazon, so that you can revel in every single grain of 16mm film the way one would the musty page of a hardback novel. In a time where we find conversation so disposable as a text message that we commit the image of it to a digital Netflix stream, the permanence of film makes these timely conversations ultimately timeless.
But indeed, I must quickly concede to that very respite of the lazy film critic and somehow address the plot! There is some familiar modern French melodrama concerning an author who can’t get his publisher to publish his latest overtly auto-fictional novel (one self-indulgently ripped from the pages of his own sordid love life). But he’s also sleeping with that publisher’s wife (played by none other than Juliette Binoche) while balancing another woman who loves him. It’s really not important, I think. It’s all about the words, the subject matter, the je ne sais quoi. Without looking at my press notes, I really couldn’t tell you the names of the characters, but then again, there is only one who matters, Assayas. The man cinematically pronouncing his opinion in the style of a true auteur.
Indeed, NON-FICTION fits very well within the Assayas oeuvre. He has now turned his thoughts towards the phenomenon of the E-Book (which was actually the original title for the film, trashed as it was considered too clinical). He is an artist whose work is obsessed with the effect of modern technology and syntax on today’s culture. The opening shot of DEMONLOVER, in which we see mindless bodies watching a violent scene on the screen of a plane, comes to mind as a succinct example. He is not necessarily one to condemn, but certainly one to endlessly discuss (I’m sure my visceral hatred of digitally reading a book projected itself onto my opinion of the film). It even is consistent in its concession to his odd love of inserting half-hearted genre elements into an otherwise straight-faced film (such as when a character pops out at another, and makes the audience jump out of surprise, as if it were momentarily a horror movie), the same way he somehow made a ghost movie out of his previous picture, PERSONAL SHOPPER.
Bottom line: if you love books, are concerned about their future, and even better, are also a fan of Assayas—this is a great film that should not be ignored despite its inherently humble existence. On a pure script level, I was compelled from when we are confronted with the opening scene, in which the idea of 140 characters on Twitter is discussed as the logical evolution of the French tradition of expressing witticisms. Some are clever, but most are trash—always have been, always will.