Non-Fiction opens with a lengthy scene in which book publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet) and author Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) meet at the former’s office, before moving to a nearby restaurant, all the time talking, talking, talking. Mostly, they discuss the disruptive impact social media has had on the rarefied working world they inhabit, breaking off only to gently bicker about the thinly-disguised autobiographical content of Léonard’s novels and the pretentiousness – or otherwise – of his avowed anti-commercialism.
It shouldn’t work because the dialogue is so plentiful and dense – writer/director Olivier Assayas has called his film “explicitly nonvisual” and shot in Super 16 to give it a "raw" look – but the sequence succeeds because you soon become aware there is an intriguing bit of needle between smug, urbane Alain and dishevelled Hobbit Léonard. It’s a feeling confirmed when publisher informs writer he has decided to pass on his latest “feel-bad” novel.
The sequence sets the tone for a film that contains an awful lot of conversing (but not much actual communicating) between people fed up with one another and who are, as a result, engaged in various betrayals. If that sounds wearing, it really isn’t, because Non-Fiction is a radiant romantic comedy for grown-ups and a fascinating change of pace after Assayas’s previous film, the gloomily glorious Personal Shopper (2016).
Essentially, it is the story of two couples – Alain and actress Selena (Juliette Binoche in her third collaboration with Assayas), and Léonard and political consultant Valérie (Nora Hamzawi). This being a film about the French bourgeoisie, most of these characters are having affairs. Selena with Léonard, Alain with the younger Laure (Christa Théret), his company’s new head of “digital transition”. But tensions rise when Alain gives Léonard the bad news about his book… only a bit, though, because no one gets particularly angry or upset about much of anything here. Professional snubs and extramarital affairs are both shrugged off with the same Gallic insouciance the rest of us might reserve for a missed train or slow-moving queue at the supermarché.
These are marriages that have seemingly run out of steam – if they were to end, it would be with a whimper not a bang. Assayas shows us no physical intimacy between either set of marrieds, only between those doing the cheating. And whilst Valérie may not be sleeping with her politician boss, David (Nicolas Bouchaud), she puts far more work and time into her job than her relationship, frequently treating Léonard with hilarious disdain. Not that he doesn’t deserve it.
For all his radical posturing, Léonard is far from sympathetic – he cheats on his wives, then writes poorly disguised versions of his affairs as “autofiction”. Unbeknownst to the author, a former spouse has caused something of an online storm, calling him out on it in a series of blog posts. He refuses to engage with social media so, when the subject is brought up at a sparsely attended book signing, the news comes as a shock. Clearly, if the online world is good for one thing, it is shining a light on that which badly behaved men like Léonard would previously have gotten away with.
One of the film’s main themes is how modern mass communication has left people of a certain age feeling dislocated and adrift, unable to truly get a handle on the digital revolution even as it transforms every area of their lives, including work and relationships. During a dinner party scene, Alain, Selena and co sit around discussing the internet like dinosaurs having a cosy chat about that noisy asteroid strike the other day, unaware of the seismic change it may mean for them. But if the online world is a mystery to these people, they are a bigger mystery to each other, fragile marriage bonds made weaker by the huge amount of time Valérie and Alain (the two most at ease with the new tech) spend checking messages, taking calls or sending tweets. The irony is that they all struggle to communicate in an age where it has never been easier to do so.
Assayas cleverly compares the supposed revolution going on in book publishing (e-readers replacing traditional print, authors getting more blog hits than book sales) with the upheavals and midlife crises his cast of characters is enduring. Yes, it’s an odd correlation to examine, but one that never feels clunky. The director’s conclusion, though, is that the promise or likelihood of great change can often be overstated or even illusory.
A quote from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard – “Everything must change, so things can stay as they are” – is put to effective use as we witness uncertainties in both marriage and business ultimately fizzle, albeit perhaps only temporarily. Print books and these bruised relationships might be under pressure, Assayas's suggestion seems to be, but it's best not to write them off just yet. I suspect he's choosing hope over judgement.
Although Non-Fiction at times contains a melancholic air ("We are all addicts now"), jokes nevertheless come thick and fast. There are some delightful running gags (including a hilariously inappropriate one about Michael Haneke's austere pre-WWI set movie The White Ribbon), but most of the humour emanates from Assayas’ compellingly drawn cast of people – especially shambolic Léonard and acerbic Valérie, who isn’t so much the author's wife as his inhouse critic. The humour gets a little too cute for its own good only once, when the real Juliette Binoche is invoked in a line about audiobooks. If it is a misstep, it is this sparkling comedy's only one.
Non-Fiction is released in UK cinemas on Friday, October 18