‘Non-Fiction’ exemplifies its own ideas, taking a backseat as a film to the philosophies it presents

Guillaume Canet and Vincent Macaigne in ‘Non-Fiction.’ — video still

Written and directed by Olivier Assayas, Non-Fiction, showing at FilmScene through July 4, is definitely a thought-provoking and overall enjoyable use of time. It is a meaty movie that hearkens back to past themes in Assyas’s work The Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper. It will confirm any stereotype about French culture that a viewer might bring to the theater: It is a movie focused more on abstract conversation over wine than a concrete plot with action sequences. It also highlights an atmosphere of sexual amorality and an overall permissive indifference that Americans either praise or demonize.

That said, the way that Assayas constructs the movie makes it a particularly useful and thought provoking movie of this “type,” even if I personally found the realization of this line of thinking particularly horrifying.

The French title, Doubles vies (Double Lives), initially would seem to indicate the hypocrisy and deceitfulness that constitute the bulk of the characters. This initially is characterized in a conversation between a publisher, Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet), and an author Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne) about a recently published book detailing the political scene and the “actual” character of politicians, which seems akin to a certain tell-all genre of book. The “double lives” of politicians — and most people — become connected to a question about what truth means (the “non-fiction” of the English title) in a digital age where perceptions frame reality and most of us accept “auto-fictions” that we tell ourselves and those we love.

One thing that the film does particularly well is its use of contingent examples and artifacts to show the interconnections that make social problems difficult to solve. For example, the introductory conversation’s actual content quickly leaves the swampy lives of politicians to wonder at a more philosophical register, with examples that are incredibly relevant for contemporary culture.

In questioning the nature of “writing” and “art,” certain examples — texting, email, blogs, audiobooks — pinpoint a strange liminal space. A series of paradoxes begins to emerge: People are reading and writing more than ever, but they do so in formats that reward superficial engagement rather than concentrated thoughtfulness. Digital culture not only expands democratic inclusiveness (by allowing access to a multitude of ideas and by digitizing books so that they’re easily accessible) but also does so through a corporate structure based on personal data and profit motives.

Another paradox exposes the tension of value — how the reduced cost of digital products indicate that they are “cheaper” and thus less worthwhile, weakening their value, but simultaneously giving more access to these products, making them more valuable. The question of “cheap” and “value” becomes important relative to questions of quality and veracity and the role of cultural custodians like publishers or libraries.

Juliet Binoche in ‘Non-Fiction.’ — video still

The dialogue also reflects the importance of these questions relative to democratic ideals and institutions — conveniently, one of the major characters works with a politician. Macaigne and Canet — as well as Juliet Binoche (Selena) and Nora Hamzawi (Valerie) — do an excellent job of anchoring this dialogue rich (heavy) film in something enjoyable (although the movie itself suspends the question of whether art’s enjoyment should be measured by critics or by audiences).

What becomes more interesting is the way that non-fiction/double lives look at the gap between the stories we tell others and tell ourselves, in terms of both personal and professional lives. Leonard’s approach to fiction is to anchor it in his own real life experiences that he then “disguises” by altering details, a work of “storytelling” that protects certain identities.

The cost of this, however, is to make individuals interchangeable: if the actual human analogue of a fictional mistress, for example, doesn’t matter, then the women seem indistinguishable. They fill a vacancy (which the film makes explicit with a character engaged in a job transition). The life lived at the level of the fictive — the roles we play for each other — is always a double life. This frightens me as a humanist.

Nora Hamzawi in ‘Non-Fiction.’ — video still

The movie courageously takes this all the way down to the basic materiality of the world. When Leonard “knocks on wood,” he is corrected and told that the substance “isn’t real wood.” The nature of the reality of the fake wood provides a startlingly strong foundation for Leonard’s conversation to build upon. The movie shows the wisdom of embracing — and the difficulty of avoiding — an ultimate indifference to truth, given the importance of publicists and positive impressions that frame the experience of everyday reality.

At the same time, it also shows the cost of this resignation in terms of its relatively selfish and self-absorbed characters with whom it is difficult (intentionally, one suspects) to actually connect. The movie weaves in questions of faith (which juxtaposes a belief at odds with material presentation), authenticity in art, what satisfaction means. Throughout, the movie does what Leonard’s book is said to do: “trigger a thought process that comes beyond it.” This thought terrifies me as a human.

That the ideas are so deliciously thick in the movie makes the actual movie seem superfluous, a movie that in itself duplicates its own thematic premise. The concrete bodies of the actors become superfluous relative to their perspectives. Although the core actors do an excellent job in embodying their roles, it nonetheless was difficult to attend to the quality of the acting or the cinematography — the movie may as well be an audiobook, in that regard.

‘Non-Fiction.’ — video still

I suspect that what one remembers of the film will reflect the viewer’s own space of familiarity — while I thought of it as a particularly interesting and salient positioning of ontological issues, a friend thought of it as a thought provoking version of what one could hear during a panel on publishing and another friend thought that it depicted an ideal sort of dinner party conversational banter. The movie is open enough about relevant issues in today’s world to be enjoyed from any of these perspectives (and undoubtedly others).

The role of children in this movie — the way in which the question of fiction, non-fiction and double lives evaporate in a child’s laughter, or in the possibility of new life — humanize this movie in a particularly important way. I would highly recommend seeing the movie, particularly with thoughtful conversational companions who would enjoy parsing through its rich scenes and ideas for a few hours (or days) afterward. While the movie as a film is perhaps forgettable, the way that it contextualizes ideas is marvelous.

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