Self-awareness is not a trait that defines our era. In the American TV series Younger, publishing-industry colleagues flounce toward career goals, mindless of how their singlemindedness affects others. Modeled after the hedonists of Sex and the City, they’re also miniature versions of what Tom Wolfe characterized as “Masters of the Universe” in Bonfire of the Vanities, his epochal ruling-class satire. But satire, like humor, has vanished post-Obama. Media-class narcissism outpaces any moral sense; it’s comfortably elitist. This predicament makes Olivier Assayas’s new film Non-Fiction relevant and, unfortunately, vapid.
Non-Fiction observes ruthless publishing-industry types. Editor Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet) resents writer Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne) for intellectual differences and for having an ongoing affair with Alain’s actress wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche). Alain’s dalliance with bisexual digital techie Laure d’Angerville (Christa Théret) parallels the same envy and deceit. The French tradition of moral relativism echoes the current crisis in which personal satisfaction contradicts our purported principles — that is, how Millennials lie to themselves.
Given this theme, Non-Fiction is neither a fun sex farce, nor a serious one like Max Ophuls’s 1950 classic La Ronde or Whit Stillman’s 1998 The Last Days of Disco (in both films, STDs showed the price paid for communicable immorality). Non-Fiction’s celebration of dishonesty is compounded by IFC, the film’s American distributor, whose changed title for the film overlooks the hypocrisy implied by the film’s original French title: Doubles vies (Double Lives).
Assayas dramatizes millennial culture’s moral duplicity. As soon as you recognize the behavior of Assayas’s characters (Spiegel’s hateful wife, who is a campaign manager for a liberal politician; the ruthlessly ambivalent media wonk; each yuppie’s comfortable bourgeois routines and snooty intellectual feints), it’s easy to imagine American parallels — in the folks who run the literary worlds from The New Yorker to Vanity Fair and the defensive arrogance of political hacks who maintain ties to media organizations. Non-Fiction suggests that this type of behavior is epidemic. The film becomes insufferable when Assayas’s perspective generates approval rather than criticism — just like the American TV shows Younger, Veep, Deep State, House of Cards, and other such cable-subscriber porn.
One Non-Fiction character describes his class’s use of witticisms as “very French.” Credit Assayas for capturing the exact tenor of their snobbery: “Tweets are modern-day haiku,” approves one member of the smart set, who fool themselves with pseudo-intellectual ideas yet are unable to be honest about personal issues. Their superficiality is obscured by trendy discourse. It’s an update of the digital-age treachery that Assayas first dramatized in 2002’s demonlover, foreshadowing both Sex and the City and Younger.
Non-Fiction’s social hustlers replace morality and religion with digital-age pseudo-sophistication and artistic pretense. Laure has never seen an Ingmar Bergman film, yet Alain misinforms her that “Winter Light is not about religion,” finding a secular excuse to lord a cultural totem over her generational naïveté. Selena and Spiegel similarly distort an assignation in art terms (agreeing to pretend that their fellatio during The Force Awakens happened during Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon). In one briefly fascinating scene, a SWAT team advances upstairs with guns drawn. It evokes the tragic Charlie Hebdo raid, but, instead, it’s just Selena’s TV series done in the misleading, globally recognizable style of a news broadcast.
We need a cinematic cultural and spiritual critique today the same way the Vietnam War years needed Apocalypse Now. But despite Selena’s chagrin about making junk TV shows (her policier Collision is repeatedly confused with Collusion — the film’s wittiest jest), Non-Fiction isn’t enough. Neither is Laure’s warning to Alain about journalistic conformity: “We are custodians of ideas that travel through time. . . . We must choose the change, not suffer it.” Assayas resists judging his characters and winds up praising them. Robert Altman avoided this mistake in the moral, cultural, political critique of his ultimate Hollywood satire The Player, yet cinematographer Yorick Le Saux photographs Assayas’s reprobates in soft, sunny light as August Renoir might have fêted them.
Lately, my film friends all repeat the same complaint: “Movies are over.” Their lament continues when artistic achievements such as Dragged Across Concrete, Sorry Angel, The Image Book, Legend of the Demon Cat, Sauvage/Wild, and Shadow fail to attract the popular audiences that have, apparently, retreated to Netflix and HBO trash. Maybe that’s why Olivier Assayas deals with literature and publishing in Non-Fiction rather than cinema and the film industry.
Although Assayas belongs to the last generation of filmmakers who habitually reference their cinematic cultural heritage, his best films (Les destinées sentimentales, Summer Hours) treat lost tradition with both sorrow and dismissal. Assayas treats Millennial corruption as mere devolution. This dishonesty is exactly what allows one to say that “movies are over.”
Assayas’s failure to offer critique means that he doesn’t supply the moral exemplar or catharsis of truly great cinema. Non-Fiction ought to be the movie of the year, but by flattering the squalid lives of the arbiters of Fake News, it fails.