Hidden behind a mist of respectability and elitism, the French publishing industry is not frequently depicted on film. Yet examining this creative sector provides director Olivier Assayas an opportunity to expose its often unknown workings, and reflect upon the revolution caused by the creation of eBooks.
This does not mean that Assayas’s attempts at transforming his exploration of the industry into an engaging film are entirely successful. Non-Fiction opens with a dialogue between writer Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) and his publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet). Although these actors are well-regarded, what we see are two flat, artificial characters stuck in a spiritless dialogue. Their cues seem taken straight out of a thesaurus; their vocabulary better suited to an academic essay. The overuse of French negations (je ne) distances these robot-like characters from the viewer. Portraying highly literate men does not mean they should speak as if they are constantly making academic speeches.
The dialogue’s inauthenticity is reiterated by its content. Non-Fiction becomes stuck in a never-ending cycle revolving around debates about the future of the publishing industry: will the printed book disappear, destroyed by electronic editions? Are audiobooks the way forward? Can a novel use real people as characters, as Léonard does with his mistress? Can autobiography hide behind fiction with impunity? These questions might have been interesting had they not been drowned by the film’s repetitive debates. It is as if whenever a new character enters, they must take a stand and provide a pre-rehearsed, mechanical answer to the above questions, thus restarting a dialogue that never resolves. While these debates are central to a film focusing on the relationship between a writer and his editor, they remain overly theoretical. In a departure from its French title Doubles Vies (which literally translates to Double Lives), its English one is more representative of what the film involuntarily is: non-fiction superimposed onto fiction.
These interminable, theoretical conversations are made even more confusing and frustrating by unexpected transitions, cutting off the possibility of a consensus to get to the next, often unrelated scene. Non-Fiction does not seem to know where it is going, nor what it wants to assert. This is aggravated by the overuse of film grain, which is so visible that it obscures the image, revealing its own artificiality.
Alain’s wife Selena (Juliette Binoche) compensates for some of this excessive artifice. As an actress who has been playing the same character for four years in an average police TV series, she is bored. She is hesitant to quit, however, since people respond positively to her work. As Leonard’s mistress, he portrays Selena under a different name in his latest book. Her multiple lives are depicted across various medias: the actual film, her TV series, and Leonard’s novel. Driven by contradictory emotions, she is the one who talks the least, yet expresses the most. Binoche’s acting outdoes her colleagues’ submissive rendition of their script. Her natural way of speaking, compared to the stilted speech of the others, makes us sympathise with her more.
Selena evolves as a refreshing, multi-layered character who keeps the whole film afloat. She is the only one to keep her distance from discussions about the publishing industry’s future, her steadfast argument being that the printed book will survive anyway. As no other option emerges from the quagmire of theoretical conversations, we end up taking her side, quickly forgetting the alternatives. It is not the actual subject of the film that wins our interest, but the doubly meta-theatrical character of Selena. Meta-fiction wins over non-fiction.