Olivier Assayas' 'Non-Fiction' Fiddles with Seriousness

Vincent Macaigne as Léonard Spiegel in Non-Fiction (Doubles vie) (2018)

In Olivier Assayas' speedy, slightly wan dispatch from salon society, Non-Fiction (Doubles vie), Parisians have badly concealed affairs and argue loudly but inconclusively about books and society.

Olivier Assayas

IFC Films / Sundance Selects

May 2019


"Fewer readers, more books." "I reject this materialistic society." "These are narcissistic times." Those are just a few of the cheery bon mots being lobbed around in the opening minutes of Olivier Assayas's argumentative but thin wannabe literary salon of a movie. A number of them are provided by the movie's most irritating yet nevertheless liveliest character, Leonard (Vincent Macaigne). A slightly slovenly novelist who doesn't have the energy to go online to see what people are writing about him. He can hardly be bothered to pull the thinnest of veils over the autobiographical slurry constituting his increasingly unpopular novels. He likes to proclaim his work "autofiction", as though he were a Gallic Karl Ove Knausgård, but it seems more like the blatant navel-gazing blogging he despises so.

This habit irritates some of those around Leonard, not just his thinning readership. His agent Alain (Guillaume Canet, somewhat anaesthetized-seeming) doesn't quite have the heart to tell Leonard that his books just aren't selling and that maybe it's time to try something else. Meanwhile, Alain's wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), a popular but somewhat over-it TV actress, is peeved at Leonard's barely fictionalized writing since the two of them are having an affair. Sure, it's Paris, and it's not as though he isn't having his own thing on the side—a tryst with his house's youthful new blonde digital-publishing maven, Laure (Christa Theret) that feels so preordained it might as well have been part of her new-hire training. Nevertheless, Selena would rather not rock the boat.

What Selena does want to do is the same as just about everyone else in Non-Fiction (Doubles vie): Argue. Whether the characters are lounging in bed, at a restaurant, or circling around each other at a party so bristling with tension that you're just waiting for a wine glass to get thrown, they are verbally battling. Politics ripple through at times, but only on a superficially cynical level, to the consternation of Leonard's grumpily earnest wife, Valerie (Nora Hamzawi), who works for a similarly earnest Socialist politician reviled by the movie's salon set for being, well, they're just not sure what.

Like people everywhere, for the most part, they argue and complain. Like people in publishing everywhere, they lament that nobody seems to read anymore. This begins somewhat interestingly, with Leonard essentially refusing to acknowledge that the world has changed, and Alain jousting with Laure over the virtues of print versus digital. But things spiral rapidly into a kind of irrelevance, as the arguments fill the kind of apocalyptic ebooks-are-coming worries that were far more prevalent several years ago. It's difficult to imagine anybody in today's publishing world expressing the kind of naïve digital utopianism ("tweets are modern-day haikus") issuing from Laure without being laughed out of the room.

Vincent Macaigne as Léonard Spiegel and Nora Hamzawi as Valérie (IMDB)

Assayas, who normally has a well-attuned ear for cultural nuance, radiates tensions of societal displacement throughout his sometimes spiky but more often rambling screenplay. In one promising scene Leonard gets pilloried at a bookstore event for writing fictionalized versions of people without their consent. But that fails to go much of anywhere besides Selena insisting that he not use their affair for his work. Similarly, Alain musters a sharp counterattack on the idea being foisted on him that the digital flood is inescapable by noting, "No one asks us, then it's too late." Which is about as cogent a summation of 21st century disruption as have ever been uttered.

Beyond the vague sense of everything being at something of a hinge point, from these potentially fracturing relationships to the nation's once-hallowed literary culture rotting from within, there is not much holding Non-Fiction together. Assayas's light touch with dialogue, a screenful of committed performances, and at least one solid meta-joke (wondering who they can get to perform the audiobook of Leonard's novel, Alain suggests "Juliette Binoche") make for a fast-moving and occasionally thoughtful romantic dramedy.

But from the filmmaker who gave us Carlos (2010) and Clouds of Sils Maria (2015), that hardly seems like enough.






Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.