Non-Fiction is the sort of movie that smart people like to watch to remind themselves that they are indeed intelligent without actually being challenged. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Entire studios and careers have been dedicated to such endeavors. At least this movie is quite amusing in its navel-gazing, even if it’s little more than mild lark from Olivier Assayas in between more sincere and serious projects.
Want to know what kind of smarty-pants character comedy Non-Fiction is? It takes place in the publishing industry. Guillaume Canet stars as Alain, an editor at a publishing house whose life goes all topsy-turvy in a variety of ways. The big one is that he’s worried about how the digital revolution and e-books will affect the future of his industry. (It’s unclear if this is supposed to be a period piece set in 2010, but you just kind of go with it.) He brings in Laure (Christa Théret) to help with the technological transition and soon enough they’re also helping each other with orgasms as well.
That’s probably not great news for Alain’s wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche). She has her own problems transitioning out of serious theatrical acting and into a TV show while also possibly having a wee affair herself. Then there’s the absolutely hilarious Vincent Macaigne playing a struggling novelist trying to get published by Alain. He writes painfully autobiographical stories and hates new technology. He’s also having an affair and his wife (Nora Hamzawi) knows because he wrote a book about it. The wife in turn has a job covering up for a politician.
Yeah, that’s quite a bit going on. This is a farce, after all. Overstuffed narratives and infidelity are the bread and butter of the genre. Fortunately, it’s quite funny and charming. Writer/director Assayas nimbly juggles all the competing characters and threads in a manner that feels effortless. Every character is lying, but there’s never any confusion. Every actor has a meaty monologue or three between the giggles.
Juliette Binoche obviously shines as she and the director have shared so many years together that they suit each other perfectly (the movie even has a winking joke to that effect for those who care), but the biggest scene stealer is Vincent Macaigne coming off as a French Charlie Day and even more awkwardly hilarious than that sounds. It’s a lark for the actors and Assayas lets them take center stage, holding back on his usual flashy visuals for a fairly lax and observational affair.
The film has plenty of ideas in play. A farce this might be, but it’s still one made by a French intellectual, with lots of discussion about the impact of the digital revolution on traditional institutions and middle age folk. Plus, there’s discussion of the dual lives we all have both in relationship to technology and to each other. That’s a lot to fuss over and giggle about before ultimately coming to the conclusion that little of it matters and we’re all pretty much the same fuck-ups and malcontents we always were. It’s almost like a late period Woody Allen movie but with subtitles and without residual Woody Allen ickiness. In other words, your most pretentious pals will love Non-Fiction and no one else you know will even hear about it. Olivier Assayas is good at that.