The Unspectacular Now
By Demitra Kampakis

NYFF 2018:
Non-Fiction
Dir. Olivier Assayas, France, IFC Films

The French title of Olivier Assayas’s new film Non-Fiction—Double vies (“double lives”) is an apt title for a film exploring themes of authenticity, performance, fidelity, the limitations of fiction in capturing reality and lived experience, the meta nature of art imitating life, and how one navigates their professional, personal and cultural identity amidst a rapidly changing zeitgeist. If that sounds like a dizzying philosophical fusillade, it’s because it is precisely that. To call Assayas’s latest film thematically ambitious would be an understatement.

Non-Fiction centers around five characters who to one degree or another exist within the insular milieu of Parisian publishing, and who find themselves having to professionally and personally adapt to the various seismic cultural changes brought on by social media in different ways. First there’s Alain (Guillaume Canet), a publishing executive who understands that the future of his industry lies in the digital. Though he recognizes the demands of the current market, he is also a bit ambivalent about fully embracing his profession’s digital takeover, and what it means for the future of print, which up to this point has been his bread and butter. His wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche), an aging actress who has a steady but unfulfilling TV gig, resolutely laments the advent of binge-watching, Twitter, e-books, blogging, and the like, platforms that she believes compromise the integrity and merits of art and literature. She doesn’t disagree that the Internet has led to a proliferation in writing; she just believes said writing has become much more simplified. In Selena’s eyes, the Internet has caused an intellectual laziness amongst the younger generations (after all, why bother reading a novel when stories are now being told on Twitter?), which is why she has trouble coming to terms with literature and journalism’s growing dematerialization and de-commercialization online. The same goes for her profession—the thought of people watching her work on an iPhone disgusts her. It’s not a stretch to say that Selena is not the biggest fan of postmodern art theory: because she sees information and writing as having an inherent value, its democratization and free accessibility on the Internet is almost offensive to her. She does have a point: as Selena argues, no one really objects to spending thousands on a laptop, but God forbid you’re asked to pay 99 cents for a song on iTunes. Needless to say, you won’t find her reading Adorno on an iPad anytime soon—let alone listening on an audiobook.

On the other end of this spectrum lies Laure (Christa Théret), whom Alain hires to oversee his publishing house’s digital transition. A true millennial, Laure is not at all threatened by the future of media and publishing, and even holds some extreme views regarding the extinction of libraries and bookstores. Believing texts to be a modern form of writing and tweets modern-day haikus, Laure doesn’t find her views cynical, because she sees what the pre-Internet generation can’t: that the industry is on the precipice of a new age, one that’s in rapid cultural flux, but to her, is no less legitimate.

Sharing Selena’s reticence is Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), a writer who’s been signed under Alain for years, and who has been having an affair with Selena for six. Though Leonard markets himself as a fiction writer, his work is really just autobiography thinly veiled as fictive—or what he refers to as “auto-fiction.” Since his every story chronicles a different sordid love affair with women whose real-life identities are pretty obvious, and given the misogyny and salacious invasion of privacy with which these trysts are recounted, Leonard’s work sparks controversy amongst the blogosphere, raising questions of creative agency. Is auto-fiction more creatively lazy than fiction, at a time when there’s a world of information and inspiration available at the press of a button? A self-absorbed and self-pitying buffoon who prides himself on his contempt for materialism and the mainstream, Leonard is constantly looking to his wife Valerie (Nora Hamzawi)—an exasperated political strategist whose progressive convictions are seen as naïve or impractical by friends—to stroke his bruised ego, to no avail. Lucky for him, he has a passionate cheerleader in Selena, for she is the muse for his next manuscript.

In films like Irma Vep, demonlover, and Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas has consistently returned to, and been keenly attuned to, the ways technology affects and reflects our social interactions and familial dynamics—with permanence, or the lack thereof, being a common focal point. In his previous film Personal Shopper, Assayas focused his gaze on the permanence of digital communication as it exists in the cyber realm, where one can retrieve months-old text conversations by merely scrolling—and how said communication affects our relationship to the dead and the past. With Non-Fiction, Assayas shifts his gaze to the cultural impermanence brought on by technology: here, he more acutely focuses on the present moment; when a Snapchat can be deleted within seconds, and there’s a different trending hashtag every day. What effect does this transience of information and communication have on the collective cultural identity? How can the zeitgeist be defined when it’s so rapidly shifting?

Assayas has always interrogated the moment, even during a postmodern age when it’s difficult to grasp, or identify the zeitgeist while living in it. Assayas’s characters understand this as much as he does, which is why Non-Fiction is about perspective as much as it is about permanence, with each character interpreting the present moment in different ways. For some, like Alain, though he doesn’t find “the demon to be digital”—as Laure playfully puts it—the uncertain future of his revered institution has catalyzed a humbling existential crisis within him, to say nothing of the economic and professional anxieties he, Leonard, and Selena feel. Given how the media dictates the cultural conversation, how will social media change the way we produce and consume art, literature, and criticism in the future? At a time when society seems to be “post-truth”—when truth and values themselves are products of social and cultural circumstances that change day to day, when algorithms curate your news according to personal tastes and interests rather than universal facts—how does one cultivate an individual or collective identity? What artistic or intellectual legacies are we able to leave behind, challenging those who are out of step with the times? Naturally, these questions threaten our characters’ inflated egos.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a true Assayas film without some meta commentary. His dialogue is laced with nods to his craft that while very funny, can register as a bit indulgent in their irreverent self-referentiality—as Leonard puts it, being in tune with the zeitgeist is a “merchant’s talent.” The film itself seems to exist on two planes—a double life, so to speak—and as with Clouds of Sils Maria, Binoche’s character being an actor provides a humorous winking opportunity for Assayas to probe notions of performance and pretense, and the ways in which art can be formally deconstructed. Two standouts include a hilarious running gag involving fellatio and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and a fourth-wall-breaking moment in which Binoche namedrops Juliette Binoche as a potential candidate for an audiobook narration.

In questioning the cynicism of this postmodern age, where sincerity is replaced by irony and skepticism, Assayas’s screenplay is permeated with those very traits. These unabashedly bourgeois characters are nothing if not articulate, and they use their verbiage as a kind of defense mechanism and a buoy against an uncertain social landscape. Although this leads to some very thoughtful witticisms and insights, the script—whose loquaciousness has echoes of a stage play—is so saturated with subtext, abstract postulating, philosophical musings, and dense dialogue, that it admittedly required a second viewing to be able to digest it all. Naturally, this second viewing was screened on a laptop.