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Vol. 41 No. 21 · 7 November 2019
At the Movies

‘Non-Fiction’

Michael Wood

The film​ begins with some anxious jokes about the changing times. The ancien régime is mentioned, meaning both the political order before the Revolution and yesterday’s state of play in French publishing and digital media. The possibility is floated that Twitter will usher in a new golden age of the epigram, make brevity the soul of wit again, rather than give people permission to ramble for ever in short bursts. This would be très français, we hear, implying that a crumb or two of cultural capital might be taken back from the Americans, Trump supplanted by La Rochefoucauld.

The film is Non-Fiction, written and directed by Olivier Assayas, and the narrative context of the scene is a meeting between a novelist and his hitherto publisher. They have lunch at the restaurant Au Saint Benoît, fine food no doubt, but served at tables crowded together like desks in an overused classroom. Neither man has wine – publishing is not what it used to be. The novelist awkwardly asks about his novel and the publisher says he has read it and liked it. The novelist is not smart enough to see that this is the end of the road; just smart enough to feel that something’s wrong. The two men return to the publisher’s office and the novelist asks outright: is the house going to take his book? The publisher says no, in a slightly surprised tone, as if they had settled the question some time before. The novelist is baffled, and the film’s opening credits come up.

A lot of what is going to happen in the film has already happened in this scene. This is the microrealism of what doesn’t matter – or doesn’t matter much. The acting and directing in this sense have perfect pitch, a true sense of how seriously triviality likes to take itself. Guillaume Canet as the publisher – the house is Editions Vertheuil, and the rhyme with Seuil can’t be an accident – comes across as intelligent, witty, poised and slightly unbearable only in his confidence that there is nothing his irony can’t conquer. Vincent Macaigne as the novelist is a less cinegenic but potentially more sympathetic type: plump, worried, trying to hang on to his old, slow rhythms in a world that moves too fast. This is a man whose hair has been carefully uncombed before almost every appearance he makes. But then we may feel that both men are equally helpless in these digital times: cool smiles and scruffy bewilderment carry the same message. The French word for digital – numérique – is repeated again and again in the movie, and it carries implications that are very different from those of its English cousin. What can it mean to talk about numbers all the time and not know what any of them are?

It’s easy to enjoy what Assayas is doing – in the long first scene and throughout the film – but hard to say what it is. Microrealism is a start but only a start. What do we call a mode that ought to be satire but isn’t? Let’s say that Assayas is filming a cultural moment, letting us see the movements and attitudes of people who are floundering without knowing it, lost in the cosy dream of their inability to change their habits. The style of the direction is not at all ironic; friendly, rather, at times even tender. But also weirdly ruthless. These people – Canet and his wife, Juliette Binoche, an actress in the film and out of it; Macaigne and his wife, a political consultant played by Nora Hamzawi; various eating and drinking pals of theirs – are so resolute in their self-absorption, their unwillingness to listen to anyone else, least of all one another, that to assemble them amounts to criticism of a class. No one in this film is going anywhere. Their world may not even die; it could just be parked in a side street, like a forgotten car. It makes sense, of course, given the rather bland tone of the film, that what I am calling an implicit – perhaps even an unintended – criticism has been seen as a celebration of the very same thing.

Both the plot and the locations make it difficult to distinguish between comfort and claustrophobia. Binoche is having an affair with Macaigne, and calls it off (after six years) when she realises how little fiction there is in his fiction. He just raids his private life (and that of others) and changes a few names and settings: the blow job he received in the cinema actually took place during a screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and not, as his novel said, Haneke’s The White Ribbon. The English title of Assayas’s film underlines the method: non-fiction is what fiction becomes when you’re not very good at it. The French title, Doubles Vies, makes the same point rather differently. Echoing Marx (well, nearly), it says facts and personages appear twice: the first time as humdrum history, the second time as printed farce. Canet meanwhile is having an affair with a young Vertheuil employee (Christa Théret) who wants to digitise everything. The places in the film are as restricted and repetitive as the persons. After the office and restaurant, we get living rooms where people eat and drink and quarrel, bedrooms where they fail to talk, and cafés where they meet and say goodbye. There are almost no exteriors, though it must be cold, because the people are wearing funny scarves and silly hats.

One of the film’s most subtle features is the way the characters speak all the time – mainly about the digital invasion – without saying anything at all. Or doing anything. Surely this rings a bell or two outside Paris. The bloggers and the tweeters and the lovers of ebooks actually connect with the supposed new world as little as the old fogeys do. And the canny pretenders, the members of the old guard disguising themselves as sceptical proponents of the avant-garde, are perhaps the most helpless figures of all.

Suddenly, towards the end of the film, the story seems to escape its enclosure. We’re not in Paris any more. We see a couple on a motorbike, their helmets hiding their identity from us. They ride country roads, then take a sandy track between bushes to arrive at the sight of the sea. Is this a new beginning? No, it’s the same gang in their rustic mode. Macaigne and Hamzawi are visiting Canet and Binoche: the basic cast. Everyone is tired. The piece of the plot that suggested Canet might lose his job because Editions Vertheuil would be sold to an illiterate (but not innumerate) magnate has fallen away: it was just a ruse meant to help complete a larger bit of business. Binoche is giving up the TV series she has starred in and will perhaps play Phèdre on the stage. She wonders whether it is a sign of age even to contemplate the role, but reassures herself by recalling that Sarah Bernhardt was thirty when she took it on. Macaigne is hoping to get Juliette Binoche – the real one, not the character she plays in the movie – to record the audio version of his novel, which Canet has published after all.

Macaigne and Hamzawi take a walk and then sit and chat. She says she has a secret she wishes to tell him. It’s true that we haven’t heard anything about her lover yet, but we’re sure she must have one: it’s in the structural logic of the plot, and what other kinds of secret are there? Well, there is another kind: she’s pregnant. This is a bit of mystery, we learn, because their ancient efforts with IVF brought no results, and he can’t remember the last time he slept with her. But there is no one else. She is manifestly happy, and her question is whether he is. He doesn’t look it. He looks as if someone has turned down another one of his novels. But then he comes round, sketches a smile.

The scene would be mawkish in most films, but here it feels gothic, as if non-fiction has turned into something beyond farce. Can we do anything with this cheery ending, the hint of promise? No, but the relentless, self-congratulating blandness of the characters comes back to us before we have really started trying, and a darker reading makes its way to the surface. Perhaps the unfortunate child to come suggests a laissez-faire variant on a theme from Lampedusa’s The Leopard, prominently quoted in the film: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ For Non-Fiction, the wording could be: ‘If we want the world to remain as it is, we must people it with unapologetic creatures just like us.’

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