Non-Fiction is about the democratizing of books. It makes sense that it would have the same attitude about relationships. Director Olivier Assayas has done the thinkpiece work for us. His work is as self-analytical and inwardly commenting as they come. The emerging auteur has crafted a refined work that explores the nature of writing, editing, and publishing with the internet. A Parisian publishing house faces the requisite modern challenges: how the written word can exist in an age of instant access. How can relationships exist? Assayas is a purveyor of the modern writing culture, presenting a Media Studies course by way of artisan filmmaking. Some of the finest French actors spar and riposte with their words and few actions, establishing a tangled power dynamic between an autobiographical writer and an editor who has an impulse that the work has become dangerously entwined with his own life.
Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) has created his latest work of “Auto-fiction” called “Full Stop”. He writes freely of his affair with his editor’s wife, under the regular guise of characters and the removal of the author from his work. Canet can say so much through underacting. His resignation and plight are not totally sympathetic. He’s a bit of a rat and is not framed any differently. The actor finds the humor in the situation, rendering an entirely complex and psychologically deep character. Nobody has been funnier than Macaigne this year, in his own sad way. His acting always shows us what he is thinking, and he acts like a writer with heavyweight secrets. His editor Alain (an equally well-matched Guillaume Canet) instinctively knows what is wrong with the work. It represents his own insecurities – the difficulty of working with an author who’s abused the writer-editor relationship and created subterfuge in their power dynamic. His publishing house is struggling anyway and needs more compelling work. It’s not enough to write the same old story, when there is something bolder to say in a time where the competition is immediately uploaded and costs significantly less than an old doorstopper.
The conflict is designed by the film’s men, but the film becomes exquisite through its women. As Léonard’s wife, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) turns in the film’s sole warm, human performance, handling the complexity of the role well. The author’s wife knows when she is no longer the muse. When the author’s work is rejected, she gives him direct feedback, revise the work or scrap it. Alain has been a good editor and if he does not believe in the work, it must be morally askew. Valérie knows that he is consumed with something beyond her – the way he laughs at his phone, the tells that you used to give your spouse, are the most apparent things in the world to them. She knows he is not only talking about the latest poster to a Star Wars film, as he claims – Assayas absolutely loves peppering the film with the low culture of binge-worthy television and for-entertainment movies, despite the high-end stature of his own work. About halfway through, the film turns the situation on the characters’ heads. Valérie is right, because here she is always right and represents moral good, her husband’s cheating with his editor’s wife – a scene and husband stealing – Selena (Juliette Binoche). The women pair off stunningly. We believe Binoche immediately. We always do. Binoche is having the best year, with astoundingly sensual work in High Life and as a perfectly flawed person in Non-Fiction. Her character is often busy shooting for her latest television show, called “Collusion” (everyone says, “Collision”). The greatest minds of literature are married and occupied with frivolous entertainment, because everyone is. They know their time is short and modern art has been contracted out to some committee. Binoche ably represents the new way of doings things, a perfectly acted metaphor for the challenges the publishing house, and thus her husband now faces.
Assayas has willful fun with a very talkative script. Every scene is lead through dialogue and exceptional performances. We find none of the characters are living any ideal relationship of love. They’ve all been taken by their work. As a meditation on the mechanisms of modern publishing, Non-Fiction only delves into the surface level issues. It has analyzed itself thoroughly and still holds up to any further scrutiny. The performances hold all the weight and the actors are smartly paired. We cannot misread the stuffy premise – there is plenty of comedy and tension between Non-Fiction’s great cast. Among Assayas’ work, Non-Fiction is perhaps the least personal, an amusing place to land, considering it is a reflexive study of how all fiction is inherently autobiographical.