In Non-Fiction, five characters in search of renewed authorship sit around in more or less fetching Paris locales, holding forth on the state of literature and publishing in the digital age. Will e-readers, and online chatter kill the book as we know it? Do texting and tweeting count as writing? Can fiction survive the age of confessional memoir? Who owns the written word anyway?
Oh, and it's a comedy, though writer-director Olivier Assayas is famously loose with genre etiquette and intensely serious about the mysteries of post-post-modern existence. In the opening scenes of Non-Fiction Alain (Guillaume Canet), the dapper and smugly self-possessed publisher of a tony but struggling press, lunches with a long-time author he's about to dump. The writer, Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), is shaggy and insecure — and too busy loading his plate with free food to absorb roundabout hints that his latest "auto-fiction," which draws none too subtly on his many affairs — is being dropped. Never mind that Leonard, who's married to political consultant Valerie (played by French standup comedian Nora Hamzawi), is cavorting with Alain's wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche), a congenitally dissatisfied actress in a television cop show. Or that Alain is sleeping with Laure (Christa Theret), the hot young techie in charge of finessing his company into the digital age.
Everyone in this febrile crew is emotionally knocked off center, and with one significant exception they're all living furtive double lives. They never shut up and, true to Assayas form, they aren't asking us to admire or particularly like them. Non-Fiction is a mostly delightful, occasionally exhaustingly word-drunk comedy of manners larded with giddy farce. The tone is light and breezy, and sometimes, for all its bolshie veneer, the movie feels like a sly parody of the ready-for-export French film in which urbane Parisians with glam media jobs swan about, tossing off erudite bons mots about life and lit. Except that here, on the more raggedy margins between bourgeois and boho where beer is drunk rather than Chablis, the running jokes are as likely to reference Taylor Swift and Star Wars as they are Michael Haneke and Adorno. What's more, in their hapless way the characters are genuinely trying to get a bead on a weighty question that Assayas has batted about in many of his movies — how to survive, feel, and create in an age of accelerating technological change. Assayas was pondering the fallout of the digital "revolution" (Non-Fiction implies he'd approve the quotes) as far back as Demonlover (2002), which turned on corporations duking it out for illegal 3D cyber porn. More recently, Kristen Stewart played Web-savvy but unhappy women chained to their smart phones in Assayas's wonderful Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and Personal Shopper (2016).
Precariously straddling the line between cultural democracy and high culture, the ambivalent creatives in Non-Fiction gas blithely on about the market value of e-readers, blogging and tweeting as "modern haiku," and whether anyone listens to critics (ouch) now that algorithms rule. In fact they're all totally freaked out, not just by the transition to digital that may be shaking publishing to its core, but by the wobbly uncertainty of everything except change itself.
Toward the end of Non-Fiction, two couples gather in a lovely seaside cabin for barbecue and bitchy innuendo about their now not-so-hidden histories with each other. All the anxious bed-hopping may add up to much ado about very little; someone is pregnant; the company may not be sold; the public still reads books. Resolution has never been Assayas's game. Presiding with benign amusement over all this striving, this puckish equivocator seems to suggest that we might want to hold our horses about the death of literacy and the end of democracy. As a professor of mine given to wicked butchery of the French language used to say — plus it changes, plus it stays the same.