Olivier Assayas’ last film, Personal Shopper (2016), proposed that modern technology could be a possible medium for the living to communicate with the dead. One part haute couture murder mystery and one part grief tone poem, the beguiling ghost story devoted its entire second act to a text-message conversation between the protagonist and someone who claimed to have passed into the realm of the departed. As un-thrilling as that may sound, it nevertheless functions as one of the more fascinating cinematic realizations of how humans interact digitally within their analog realities – a notion that’s commonly only hinted at in other films through obnoxious superimpositions of text messages over shots of the senders and receivers.
Personal Shopper wasn’t the first time Assayas dove into digital life. In his previous noir thrillers Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007), Assayas often denigrated technology, fingering innovation as the impetus for the widening wealth gap in an increasingly globalized world, while still fetishistically deploying new computer-generated cinematic techniques himself. That very tension is the great invention in those undervalued gems, but the formula has been reversed in his latest feature, Non-Fiction, in which the digital is foregrounded only indirectly – there are no iMac or iPhone screens showcased here – as it wreaks havoc among the French bourgeois and their romantic and professional entanglements.
Also unlike those aforementioned films, Non-Fiction is not what one would call an impressive display of genre acrobatics. If anything, Assayas is working in a Rohmerian romantic comedy of manners mode, and the result is arguably the director’s most modestly scaled and minor-key film. After the raging rivers of emotional currents in Summer Hours (2008) and Personal Shopper, the historical documents of Après Mai (2012) and Carlos (2010), and the grand persona-swap meta-fiction of Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), Non-Fiction goes down like a hastily thrown-together trifle, its deeply rich layers alternating with light and airy ones.
Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet), a suave and seductive book editor, sits with his longtime client and friend, Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne), an author whose reputation and sales have declined over the previous decade. After an extended meal in which the two dally in the media marketplace of ideas, Alain recommends that the infamous playboy writer return to his older, pulpier material instead of the thinly veiled autobiographical manuscript he’s just completed. Léonard proudly scoffs at Alain’s sly, repeated suggestions until all the beating around the bush forces the author to just flatly ask if his long-time publisher plans on releasing the new book. Alain, shocked at the naked display, quips, “No, I’m not. I thought you understood.”
This first “chapter” provides a loose key to understanding the occasionally obtuse discourse about “How We Live Now” that makes up the bulk of Non-Fiction. Protracted exchanges about the woes of social media and handheld devices, physical vs. digital media, the value of criticism and art, and the world’s political and cultural climate seem to point to Assayas picking low-hanging think-piece fruit. However, the surface-level evaluations contained within are largely acts of obfuscation by the director and his players. What’s harbored in their messages is a yearning for intimacy and authenticity that, as time passes, increasingly rise to the surface in genuine displays of human connection and expression.
The film’s French title, Double vies (“double lives”), is possibly a more apt signaling of the dialectical conversations and compartmentalization (or lack thereof) of the characters’ relationships. Within the sexual carousel – Non-Fiction is, in its essence, a contemporary version of Max Ophüls’ La ronde (1950), albeit one trapped within the social milieu of the media elite – each participant has their own double-self. Alain’s clandestine rendezvous with his publisher’s young digital-marketing savant, Laure (Christa Théret), puts his career and marriage in jeopardy. He’s married to actress Selena (the always-sublime Juliette Binoche), who, on top of her own long-standing secret affair with Léonard, is struggling with her public and personal personas. Her prominence as the lead of a popular television show only exacerbates the issue; the question of whether her character is a police officer or in crisis management adds yet another complicated layer to her in-flux existence.
That running gag is bested only by a story about lewd acts performed during a screening of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2010) – or was it Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)? This episode is featured in Léonard’s new novel, which is itself a quasi-confession about his own surreptitious past. His wife, political consultant Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), seems to be the only unbreakable link in this tangled chain, acting as an audience surrogate who observes the human foibles on display. Even in the film’s last act, a breezy weekend-in-the-country double date for the two main couples that features a silly Ocean’s 12 (2004)-style meta-moment, Valérie is the gracious and understanding force – and a signifier that Assayas is ultimately optimistic about the state of human connection.
The interconnectivity of the world that the characters so often deconstruct is found not only in the complex web of their personal lives, but also in Assayas’ relatively unassuming visuals. The director keeps his camera fluid and roving throughout the Parisian cafes and expensively decorated apartments, as if tracking the dissemination of information and personal disclosure between the nodes of the human network here. Even when his script spends pages on somewhat staid discourse, Assayas is keen to liven up this minor entry in his filmography, allowing even more casual viewers to peel back the many layers of Non-Fiction.