Non-Fiction, the new film by Olivier Assayas, is about publishing and the people who work in it. To publishing professionals, who find their industry a source of inexhaustible fascination, this will come as welcome news; to everyone else, it probably sounds as interesting as a film about tax law or podiatry. Assayas, one of France’s most gifted and prolific directors, is aware of both perspectives. He is drawn to publishing for the same reason Martin Scorsese is drawn to organized crime: it offers him a back door to the human comedy. You don’t have to be an insider to relish the film’s sparkling satire, though readers of Publishers Weekly (and perhaps The New York Review) will likely feel a twinge of recognition at the world Assayas has rendered with mordant, almost ethnographic fidelity.
If outsiders know anything about publishing, it’s that it’s in crisis. Book sales have been stagnant for years, a trend many attribute to the Internet, which, it’s claimed, has created a sense of entitlement to free stuff among consumers, to say nothing of ravaging their attention spans. I remember the first book party I went to, not long after I arrived in New York around the middle of the last decade. It was at a vast downtown loft with whitewashed brick walls, immense paper lanterns, and a semi-grand piano from which someone in a tuxedo was teasing evocative chords. Clearly our hosts, a pair of high-powered magazine editors, had done well for themselves; most of the guests, too, looked like they were at the top of the socioeconomic food chain.
Still, the sense of gathering doom was palpable. I got into a conversation with a tipsy magazine writer who told me (it was less a boast than a confession) that he’d recently received an advance of close to a million dollars for his first book, a work of cultural history based on a short article he’d published. He made no secret of the fact that he found the project slightly frivolous and beneath him, but who was he to turn up his nose at a million dollars? When I told him I was new to this world, he suggested I try selling a book on the same model. It wasn’t that hard, he said, but I’d need to get going because the money was running out fast.
More than ten years later, the money hasn’t run out, as far as I’m aware, but neither has the gloom lifted. Almost everyone I know in publishing and publishing-adjacent industries, like the news media, speaks about the future, even the very near future, in a provisional tone. They joke (or half-joke) about starting second careers should their position (or the entire company they work for) be rationalized out of existence. At least we don’t work in French publishing, where, it seems, the picture looks even worse.
This is the moment and the mood Assayas sets out to capture in Non-Fiction, his sixteenth feature. (He’d initially planned to call it E-book.) Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne) is a midlist, middle-aged French novelist who in recent years has struggled to replicate the success of his early work. In the film’s opening sequence, he calls on his longtime publisher, Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet), the head of Vertheuil Editions, to discuss his latest manuscript—the inauspiciously titled Full Stop. Léonard is anxious to know its fate, but Alain, an urbane humanist with his eye on the bottom line, seems to enjoy keeping him in suspense. They talk instead about another (made-up) novel, The Swamp, a satirical roman à clef about French politics that has been blowing up on Twitter. Léonard, a paunchy, unkempt shut-in, is quick to denounce social media. Alain is more sanguine. He likens it to intellectual culture under the ancien régime. “People sharing witticisms,” he says vaguely. “It’s very French.” Assayas doesn’t take sides, but he shows us enough about each man—Léonard’s defensiveness, Alain’s anxious desire to stay (and sound) up-to-the-minute—for us to understand that neither of them arrived at his point of view in a purely disinterested fashion.
Over lunch at a crowded Latin Quarter bistro, the stonewalling continues, as Alain treats Léonard to a candid assessment of his recent market performance. It’s true that Foundation, published a decade ago, continues to sell respectably, even after ten years, but the numbers on his subsequent books are disheartening. “Hushed Farewells: it wasn’t exactly a chart-buster,” Alain tells him. “A worst-seller, as they say.” The reaction shots of Léonard are rich in comedy and pain; Macaigne, with his repertoire of anxious nods and wincing smiles, is able to convey a secret history of frustration and defeat.
At last Alain acknowledges that he has read, and quite enjoyed, Full Stop, and singles out for praise a scene in which the two main characters meet by chance in the hardware section of the BHV, a department store in central Paris. That’s just how it happened, confesses Léonard, who, we are given to understand, has a habit of recycling his private life, including his numerous affairs. (“But didn’t you write a BHV scene before?” Alain asks a moment later, and he isn’t mistaken.) Léonard presses his publisher for additional feedback, but Alain will say nothing more than that he fears they are both out of step with the times. It is only after they have returned from lunch to the Vertheuil offices and are wishing each other good-bye that Léonard asks point-blank whether his novel has been scheduled. Alain looks confused, and Assayas heightens and prolongs the awkward moment with a slow zoom. “You’re publishing it?” Léonard asks. “No, I’m not,” Alain responds coldly. “I thought you understood.” And so the new digital economy claims another victim.
Publishing is not uncharted cinematic territory, but few directors before Assayas have found it interesting or important enough to put at the center of a film. In American movies, a job in publishing has typically been used as a shorthand for glamour and sophistication, a way to invest a character with an aura of intimidating cultural prestige. Actually Hollywood seems to find publishing outright scary.
In Fatal Attraction (1987), Glenn Close plays a book editor who sets herself to wrecking the happy home life of her married lover (Michael Douglas) after he tries to break things off. In Wolf (1994), Jack Nicholson stars as Will Randall, the editor-in-chief of a famous publishing house who, after it comes under new ownership, finds himself suddenly replaced by a young upstart. That may sound like plenty to work through, but in addition to being demoted, Randall is also turning into a werewolf. The film gets a lot about publishing right (more than a few editorial assistants, I’d submit, have suspected their boss of lycanthropy), though it’s hard to imagine an American movie training its sights on the subject without some such gimmick or supernatural twist.
Non-Fiction is different, and the difference isn’t just that it was made in France, where philosophers are celebrities and even high school students know their Montaigne from their Montesquieu. Book publishers have long been accustomed to thinking of themselves not simply as businessmen but as servants of higher values, keepers of a cultural flame. This self-image has come under increasing pressure since the corporate takeover and consolidation of the publishing industry in the 1980s and 1990s. The demand for higher profit margins that came with corporate ownership has led to a greater emphasis on commercial pablum, which is not what most people go into publishing for. (Because it is, in general, poorly remunerated, the industry has tended to attract those from well-off backgrounds, people looking to add cultural capital to the financial kind they already possess, though this isn’t to say there aren’t also legions of assistants and associates and permalancers living in genteel poverty.) Meanwhile, budgets have been slashed, imprints shuttered, staff let go. The Léonard Spiegels of the world find themselves being cast into the wilderness.
A blind (and very French) piety toward high culture, and a corresponding disdain for mere entertainment, has been an irritating hallmark of some of Assayas’s other work, like Summer Hours (2008) or Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). In Non-Fiction, the director’s concern with the material conditions of cultural production prevents him from idealizing literature and the people who write (and sell) it. In this respect, it harkens back to his depiction of the French film industry in Irma Vep (1996), which centered on a faded Nouvelle Vague auteur’s ill-fated attempt to remake Louis Feuillade’s classic crime serial Les Vampires. René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud), the director, is a sclerotic, backward-looking narcissist (a bit like Léonard) who is drawn to but unable to emulate the buoyant charm of the movie’s star, Maggie Cheung (who appears as herself). Assayas was clearly drawn to Cheung as well (he married her in 1998), and the version of herself that she played in Irma Vep—versatile, resilient, quietly self-possessed—still seems a repository of the director’s highest values.
What attracted him to the struggling turn-of-the-millennium French film business—the comic-grotesque spectacle of a beleaguered industry unwilling to give up its romantic self-image—seems to have been the same thing that excited him about present-day publishing. Assayas evokes both worlds with an impressive level of socioeconomic specificity, but Irma Vep and Non-Fiction are also universal stories about impermanence and the vanity of human wishes. Toward the end of the new film, Alain is asked if he remembers what the Prince of Salina says at the end of Lampedusa’s The Leopard. This is a French movie, and Alain is a French literary gentleman, so the answer is never in doubt. What he can’t help adding is that the oft-quoted line—“Everything must change for things to stay as they are”—rings more true now than it did when it was written half a century ago.
The publishing industry’s frantic recalibration has coincided with the rise of identity politics and the waning of a certain kind of literary authority, and Assayas is alert to this coincidence. Poor Léonard, we come to realize, is not so much an individual as an archetype, the philandering white male novelist as cultural piñata, at whom everyone in the film has had a good whack by the time the credits roll. During a reading at a Paris bookstore, he learns that his ex-wife has published a blog post saying she felt “raped” by his depiction of her in his most recent novel and that the whole Internet has turned on him.
Léonard is left repeating truisms about the autonomy of fiction, which, though they are sound as far as they go, come off as self-serving. When he says that his ex-wife is free to write about him if she wants to, a man in the crowd responds that her story has a lower market value now that Léonard has already told it. Stories don’t have a market value, Léonard insists, but the man isn’t persuaded. “The proof is your book,” he says, pointing at the stacks of the novel (Hushed Farewells) that the author is there to promote. “It’s on sale. It has a price.” Even if it isn’t selling. Once again Léonard has his face rubbed in economic realities he’d prefer not to think about.
There is no respite for him at home. His current wife, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), a hardworking consultant for a Socialist politician (and perhaps the film’s most appealing character), is unable to muster even the appearance of sympathy when Léonard tells her his novel has been rejected. Alain has changed, Léonard says. Valérie agrees but believes it’s a change for the better. “He’s more reliable, more solid,” she remarks. “Better judgment.” A brief shot of her panoply of devices charging on a side table further suggests that this may not be a marriage of true minds.
Then again, Léonard isn’t undeserving of the rough treatment he gets. As we soon learn, he is having an affair with Alain’s wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche), a classically trained actress who has lately found commercial success starring in a frothy action drama series called Collusion. Quite what Selena sees in schlubby Léonard never becomes entirely clear. (Bearded and hollow-eyed, Macaigne at times resembles an old-world Zach Galifianakis.) It turns out he has betrayed her trust by fictionalizing their relationship in Full Stop, though he has made sure to alter certain potentially incriminating details. In the novel, the male lead gets a blowjob from the Selena-proxy in a movie theater while watching Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. In reality—which is to say, in the fictional world of Non-Fiction—it was Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Léonard changed it, he tells Selena, because The White Ribbon sounds more chic. Such are the exacting choices facing the contemporary novelist.
It is unclear whether Alain knows about Léonard and Selena’s affair. (Léonard tries to throw him off the scent during their lunch by saying that Full Stop’s female protagonist is actually based on a French talk show host with whom he had a fling some years ago.) In any case, Alain is having an affair of his own with Vertheuil’s new head of digital transition, the alluring and ambitious Laure (Christa Théret). Their foreplay seems to consist mainly of debating the future of publishing. “All books available online from Google is a revolution,” Laure insists in the bar of a provincial hotel where they have come to participate in a conference on digital media. “You mean Google has taken our entire literary memory hostage to sell user data to advertisers,” Alain replies with a sour grin. He recognizes the need to adapt to change if one isn’t to fall victim to it, but like many in his position, he refuses to give up the notion that he is doing something more than just shifting product. Laure’s techno-utopianism, her vision of publishing as an industry like any other, leaves no room for such idealism, though we are alerted to the narrowness of her perspective (if it wasn’t clear already) when it comes out that she has never seen a film by Ingmar Bergman, one of Assayas’s heroes.
If it sometimes seems as though the characters in Non-Fiction speak in blog posts, this is less a failure of imagination than a reflection of the way we live now, or at least the way we talk. Assayas is especially astute about the saturation of everyday life by the Internet. Many people, not just those in publishing, spend their workdays anxiously skimming think pieces about the impending obsolescence of their profession, and their evenings and weekends at social gatherings rehearsing what they’ve read.
Non-Fiction’s French title is Doubles vies, and the double lives its characters lead are not only erotic. Social media keeps everyone up to date, but also seems to promote a detachment or self-division that enables them to betray their partners in a manner that feels insouciant even by the standards of French cinema. The film is so charming that it takes you a while to realize just how poorly the characters treat one another, the cruelty and lack of basic respect that have become the new normal of daily life.
In one scene, Léonard and Valérie return home from a contentious dinner party and begin arguing about what transpired. Valérie’s boss, the Socialist politician, came in for harsh criticism, and she feels she was spoken to rudely by the other guests. Léonard says she is overreacting. “Did you hear their tone? How they spoke to me? That contempt of politics?” she asks him, infuriated. Her husband’s response, like this witty, unpretentious film, is a model of contemporary bathos: “That’s just how people talk nowadays.”