Non-Fiction (2018)

Directed by Olivier Assayas

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In the conversation that opens Non-Fiction Léonard meets with his publisher, Alain, about his most recent autobiographical novel, “Hard Stop,” only to find out that Alain doesn’t intend to publish this one.  We learn later that he objects to the presentation of the women in Léonard’s novel, the thinly veiled fictionalization of an affair he had with a woman Alain doesn’t realize is his wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche).

It’s just about impossible to gauge all that subtext within their initial conversation, even though it runs probably around ten minutes before we get to the point of the scene, Alain’s rejection.  Instead their ambling discussion starts with the state of affairs in the literature world and builds from there to Alain pointing out that Léonard’s rejection of the digitalization of writing is just an expression of his own narcissism, just as Alain’s point of view reflects his narcissism.

Non-Fiction is pretty much just a series of conversations, some among two people in bed, even more among buzzed friends and acquaintances late at night in lavish living rooms.  These are little bubbles within which they debate the virtues and drawbacks of the changing literary landscape, well that and “Collusion,” the cop drama in which Selena reluctantly stars.

On one hand you can take their conversations and ideas at face value, but they always seem filtered through the characters’ narcissism, the idea set up in the film’s opening scene.  They can argue and pontificate all they want, but what they have to say has less to do with the world they envision or fear and all to do with themselves.

The characters here talk at each other and rarely seem to really be listening.  Their discussions of how they see the world run parallel to a whole series of affairs, like something out of a Woody Allen movie.  Some of these affairs are revealed, others remain secret, but none of them carry any significant consequence, as you might expect.

The impression I got from all of this was that they couldn’t be bothered to care what their loved one was up to because they don’t care for much beyond their own thoughts and ideas. Léonard only seems to use his series of affairs as fodder for his latest novel, something which he is forced to defend to audiences and critics because of the degree to which he refuses to fictionalize these stories.  He writes about himself and the women he sleeps with, allowing himself to drag them through the mud, as one person says, because he drags himself through it too.

They are all almost robotic, or maybe alien is the right word.  No character in the film, despite what they say or insist, seems to feel much pain.  Instead they are all quite content, each with some kind of sexual outlet that keeps them in good spirits but perhaps similarly holds them within a sort of prison.  They are all fairly successful in their careers and certainly financially, but their affluence has dulled the edge somewhere along the line.  It’s as if by experiencing everything society has to offer they’ve decided the only thing worth holding onto is their own opinions.

Near the end Léonard will learn that his girlfriend, Valérie, is pregnant.  This comes after Selena breaks off their six-year affair, which Alain never does learn about (or if he did offscreen, he seems unfazed).  He’s not exactly heartbroken, left to turn to the arms of another whom he loves less fully, but instead his apparently sincere affection for the mother of Valérie is oddly touching.

Based on what we’ve seen throughout the film it’s quite possible some will think Léonard doesn’t deserve our kindness, just as he doesn’t deserve Valérie’s, but I think his kindness shown towards her is more symbolic of the community of characters here as a whole.  It’s one of the only times someone acts unselfishly towards another, giving affection, reaching out to interact with the world rather than hiding behind closed doors and a bottle of Merlot to shout opinions about it.

He thus forgets about himself, even if just for a moment.  Maybe it’ll return, but for that scene at least it’s gone.  It’s refreshing if only because our opinions of these characters might have been sagging throughout the film.

But this is a comedy, after all, and while I found it more amusing than hilarious, there is something appealing about listening to these characters speak.  You’re not listening so much to what they have to say but just the ways in which they say it.  It’s like a bunch of people fighting verbally for their own lives, a series of gladiator fights in which only one ego can emerge unbruised.

Up Next: Take Shelter (2011), Poetry (2010), Rocketman (2019)

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