Non-Fiction review: Following his existential ghost story Personal Shopper, director Olivier Assayas returns with Non-Fiction – a similarly “talky” outing, this time following a group in the writing and publishing world as they indulge in discussions about e-books, fiction, media and the like.
With the publishing world changing rapidly before their very eyes, heading into the digital era with the likes of e-books and audiobooks, a writer Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) and his publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet) – along with their wives and friends – indulge in various discussions and arguments about the industry and whether this leap into digital is for the better. At the same time, both their relationships are struggling and they hope Leonard’s new book might help resolve some of the issues between them.
I wasn’t the biggest of fans of Assasyas’ Shopper, finding myself in the minority that didn’t quite warm to his drama – finding it more tedious and self-indulgent than chilling and enthralling. Non-Fiction is much more of the same; this is Assayas doing what he does best and if it works for you, great. However, this is a near two-hour film that is, essentially, just various dialogue and dinner scenes strung together with very little plot or coherence – and not in a free-wheeling Boyhood sort of way, but the boring kind of way. The problem with this film, and it’s a big one: writing. When you have a film full to the brim with conversation scenes, the writing needs to be good. Assayas’ screenplay, whilst certainly (and admirably), tackling some important and interesting ideas – the kind that affect us every day but also the ones we never dwell on too much – the way in which he does is just bland. Whilst the occasion scene or line pops, most of it is just comes across as too self-indulgent and pretentious to warrant merit; similarly, the dialogue itself is horribly contrived. Assayas is trying to ground the film with a sense of realism yet it feels as manufactured as a film can: everyone talks the same; says the same sort of things; there’s no personality to differ each line and each character from the next but, most of all, IT’S HORRIBLY CONTRIVED!!! This is not at all how people talk – the lines are robotic and very clearly feel like they’ve been written for a script.
As a result, since the entire film rests on these scenes working, the entire film falls flat. Again, there is the occasional scene that works or the dash of humour that lands but it’s all too few and far between to really keep this the engaging watch it should – and could – have been given the material and intrigue on hand. Not only is the dialogue pretty bad but the characterisation and story (or lack thereof) are also weak; since everyone basically talks in the same way as one another, it becomes hard to separate them as there is no distinctive trait or arc to any of the main players aside from something like career. We don’t care for any of them so when the film’s sliver of a subplot develops involving romances and the like, it doesn’t work in the slightest. Also, these threads also feel very forced and poorly handled too – they sort of just appear and feel very rushed. The film doesn’t have much of a story so lacks a structure and just sort of ebbs around, one dull conversation after the next. The actors are perfectly fine in their roles but they don’t have much to work with.
Non-Fiction review by Awais Irfan, October 2018.
Non-Fiction was reviewed at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.