New York Film Festival Review: “Non-Fiction”

Written and directed by Oliver Assayas and showing at this year’s New York Film Festival, “Non-Fiction” is a wonderfully funny, smart, bit of filmmaking. It is a movie able to offer snippets of life and some wonderful thoughts on the digital revolution.

There are some characters in the film who denigrate those who write on the internet and yet it is showing at multiple film festivals, where many in the audience write on the internet. That takes a certain degree of gumption, but Assayas pulls it off. Part of this is because the movie doesn’t squarely come down against writing on the internet, but it is much more due to the fact that everything “Non-Fiction” has to say about such a mode of communication is true.

Is Twitter the democratization of writing? Are tweets simply new witticisms or poetry? Is there more good writing today than there used to be? What does it mean that at the same time people will pay for computers and the internet, paying for books and newspapers seems to be in decline?

These are the discussions had in “Non-Fiction,” and what may be more impressive is that the talks take place without the movie ever once indicating that it is above the fray. At least one of the main characters, a novelist named Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) certainly believes himself to be better than such forms of writing, but he is cut down pretty quickly by his publisher, Alain (Guillame Canet), at the start of the film.

In fact, Léonard, with his semi-tawdry novels, may be the most mocked of any of the individuals in the movie. The author writes novels of “auto-fiction,” which in this case means that he not-too-subtly disguises his own affairs in his writing.  One of the most fascinating thoughts in the entirety of the movie is brought in regards to this during a Q&A in a bookstore. Léonard is asked whether he is essentially stealing the lives of the women he writes about – if everyone knows who these people are, and if their own story may be worth less because Léonard has written it first, has he taken money from them?

Undoubtedly, the questions go beyond the financial and into the moral, and “Non-Fiction” doesn’t mind starting to broach those as well. Were it a longer film we would surely get more of this look at this aspect of right and wrong, but there is something wonderful in Assayas knowing that it is an important, powerful, series of questions and that they sit on the horizon for these characters.

The movie does not simply confine itself to Léonard and Alain, the latter of whom is largely focused on the future of publishing and whether it will go fully digital, return to the physical, or find some (un)happy medium. That would make for a rather one-sided, incomplete work.

Juliette Binoche is the lead actress in the film and plays Selena, the wife of Alain, a friend of Léonard, and an actress struggling with some of the same sorts of questions that are plaguing those in publishing– having to move forward in the world and dealing with that future. For Selena, who has spent much of her career as a stage actress, that means struggling with the notion of whether she should leave her hit television show after three seasons.

There is also Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), the wife of Léonard. Working for a socialist politician, she too has to face questions of money and power and the future.

On top of this all are questions of love and romance and affairs. A lighthearted work even if it talks about serious things, Assayas’s movie never truly feels as though it will shatter the lives of those involved due to bed-hopping, but there is no small amount of that which takes place.

“Non-Fiction” isn’t simply smart about how it deals with all these issues and its thoughts on the murkiness of the future and where we are heading, it does it all in a witty, intimate, fashion. The audience watches as these lives unfold before us. It is exceptionally simple to drop into them mid-stream, understand it all, and watch it play out. The performances help that along as does the dialogue, which even subtitled comes across as wonderfully playful and exceptionally funny. Many conversations take place over meals or drinks and we are made to be a part of them. “Non-Fiction” feels like a movie we should all watch with a bottle of wine and some cheese.

Perhaps the next time I see it, and I certainly hope to see it again, I will bring my own refreshments.

 

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photo credit: Sundance Selects

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