As rare as it is to find films with conservative politics, it’s even rarer to find ones that are conservative in the nonpolitical sense—ones that defend and preserve a prevailing order, that lend dramatic urgency to the idea of the lack of change. One such rarity opens Friday: “Non-Fiction,” a comedy by the French director Olivier Assayas that’s set in a hermetic Paris of the arts that, in the filmmaker’s view, is doing just fine as it is. The only problem is that it’s bleeding money; its potentates worry about what to do, and its employees and dependents find their habits and routines disrupted. Spoiler alert: just a little tweak and everything goes back to normal.
Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne) is a shambling, diffident, acerbic forty-ish novelist, who lives with Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), an aide to a politician. Léonard’s specialty is “autofiction,” thinly veiled fictionalizations of his life. (In one book, he changes the site of a blow job that he received during a screening of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to a screening of “The White Ribbon.”) He prides himself on being out of touch; he hardly knows what the Internet is, let alone social media. But Léonard’s longtime editor and longtime friend, Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet), rejects his new manuscript; the business at the venerable publishing house where Alain works is changing. He has hired a young digital-media expert, Laure d’Angerville (Christa Théret), who recommends pivoting away from traditional print publishing and experimenting with creating books from digital sources such as a writer’s tweets and text messages.
Alain’s wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche), an actress, has completed three seasons of filming on a hit police drama called “Collusion,” but she doesn’t feel good about it: asked back for a fourth season, she’s dithering, and dreams of a return to the theatre. They live in a posh house on the outskirts of Paris and they have plenty of leisure for romantic dalliances. Selena and Léonard, the writer, have been having an affair for years, and Alain begins an affair with Laure, his young, digitally minded employee. All the lovers in this story display a furtive duplicity that would be the envy of politicians—literally, as it turns out.
But the dalliances and duplicities of the movie’s sex farce are inextricable from its vision of the French publishing industry. The world of “Non-Fiction” is itself what autofiction would look like if it were made as a commercial for the culturati. The film is filled with plot lines centered on the specifics of the business, involving the prospect of the venerable publishing house’s sale to a big-time digital entrepreneur, the rising and falling figures for e-books, and the new popularity of audiobooks. These subjects are among the many topical themes that are hashed out, with a nostalgic swoon, in the characters’ op-edifying dialogue. Others include the rise of Internet reviews that bypass the recommendations of literary critics, the marketing of books to consumers by algorithm, the decline of literary culture among the young, the post-truth era, the “addictive” aspect of TV series, the annoying ubiquity of smartphones, the prevalence of text messaging, the disheartening popularity of adult coloring books, and the even more disheartening popularity of popular novels.
The self-satisfied cultural assumptions of the central quartet of “Non-Fiction,” like their social and sexual roundelay, is vacuum-sealed; the characters don’t walk in a street with any life or a city with any people. There isn’t a scene in the film featuring any substantial contact with anyone outside the artistic characters’ immediate circle. Their lives involve dinner parties with other literary and artistic types, lunches and dinners at quaint restaurants (including the century-old Petit Saint Benoît), meetings at bars and offices, literary conferences and cocktail parties and hotel-room encounters—closed spaces, private gatherings, sealed-off settings where its characters live a dream life as curated by Assayas’s narrow range of curiosity.
It’s an exemplary trait of the film that the character of Valérie, whose work deals with the practical stuff of life, remains a cipher. Her political work is reduced to P.R. and damage control, her politician’s practices voided of substance and policy. For that matter, there’s a fillip of an offscreen plot point involving her boss’s arrest, for hiring a sex worker, and the movie bathes in nostalgia for the era of the comfortable privacy of the gentleman’s agreement. What’s more, the potential abuse of power in Alain’s affair with Laure (which he clearly and openly initiates) is defused with a set of plot points calculated to let Laure breeze it off with a worldly shrug. Worldly shrugs are the movie’s central dramatic gestures; they take the place of emotional honesty, rational discussion, candor, and—above all—the mental labor of introspection and confrontation. The characters’ mutual deceptions come off, mainly, as a contented laziness, a passivity that preserves the status quo, personally and professionally, at all costs. When the dust settles, the venerable publishing company stays in the hands of its venerable owners; the industry’s changes perturb nobody’s routine, disrupt no household, jolt no editorial line, intrude on no dinner party.
And costs there are. Assayas’s sealed-in, tonily professional aesthetic is a perfect, unironic, self-satisfied match for the comedic drama. Even the simplest sequences of people sitting and talking ring with the expensive exertions of an army of crew people rendering it honeyed and creamy, burnished and alluring. Assayas doesn’t divert his camera eye a millimetre toward anything less appealing and peskily intrusive. His exemplary move is to cut back from one side of two people sitting face to face to the other side, as if in brave violation of Film School 101’s hundred-and-eighty-degree rule, a petty transgression that might have seemed daring in 1959. What this method reveals, in Assayas’s tunnel vision, isn’t the other side of the action but only the other side of each character’s face.
The apparent subject of “Non-Fiction” is the world of French publishing, with a wink at acting and a nod at politics. But its core conservatism is the preservation of the well-oiled machinery of the French commercial-art-house cinema—the preservation of the very system that makes the bland professionalism of “Non-Fiction” possible. In its ridiculing of the digital realm, the online release, the independent upstart, Assayas also affirms and exalts the traditional mechanisms of French filmmaking, with its well-protected and tightly regulated modes of financing, production, and distribution—the mechanisms that exalt a glossy vanity such as “Non-Fiction” as the work of the protected species of the auteur. The movie’s very subject is the defense of a system that protects Assayas, no less than Léonard, from independent outsiders and upstarts, by treating them as national resources and luxury goods. The movie sells the same fantasy: the veneer of old-fashioned, old-world culture, without any level of difficulty.
Assayas’s cozy realm isn’t devoid of its momentary pleasures. He gives his characters some dinner-party wit that, when it sticks close to their experience, offers a spritz of epigrammatic effervescence. There’s one noteworthy comedic scene when Léonard, a guest on a radio talk show (complete with a small audience in a glass booth), gets caught short by a probing question. But, by and large, the cast is squandered—even Binoche is rendered bland—with one noteworthy exception. Macaigne is one of the new leading presences in the French cinema, as seen in several films that are as yet undistributed here (including “The Rendez-Vous of Déjà Vu,” “A World Without Women,”, and “Age of Panic”). His performance as Léonard fuses the dialectical noodginess of Jean-Pierre Léaud and the stoic sarcasm of Nanni Moretti with a hint of the hangdog weariness of Adam Sandler. He’s one of the wild originals of the French cinema. Here, he’s brought into the system, corralled, and tamped down, but his originality shines through nonetheless.