The sneaky, narcissistic and shallow characters who inhabit Olivier Assayas’ backstabbing ode to the rapidly changing publishing industry are unappealing. It’s hard to relate to them even within the context of a slightly humorous script and efficient direction.
Avid readers are switching from hardcover books and paperbacks to Kindles and iPads. That change in the book world’s business model is worth an exploration, and hopefully that’s why the French writer/director wrote the screenplay. If he developed it to showcase how adult relationships can be a minefield, he’s failed that task.
Publisher Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet, My Son) becomes more and more aware of literature’s prickly transition. He reads it in the trade papers or learns about it at book conferences. But, only half his attention is on this transformation. The other half focuses on his extra-marital affair with Laure (Christa Théret), his company’s nerdy tech specialist. Alain is getting a graduate course in 21stcentury digital technology—while he’s between the sheets with his paramour.
He usually treats his writers with kid gloves. But when his popular author Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) hands in his latest novel, Alain dismissively rejects it. The novelist’s feelings are hurt. He consoles himself in the arms of his secret lover, the very famous TV actress Selena (Juliette Binoche, Oscar winner for The English Patient). She’s Alain’s wife! Meanwhile, Léonard’s girlfriend Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), upon hearing his bad news, is blasé and unsympathetic.
These unmoved and unconcerned characters are supposed to anchor Assayas’ latest film. But since when are cold-hearted, insensitive, successful and well-to-do people all that engaging? The exception would be if they were extremely diabolical (e.g. The Favourites). Loathing, backbiting and snobby deceivers can be fascinating. But tepid people are tedious at best.
Passion is missing from every character—it’s like they’re playing at life. The bedroom scenes are lukewarm. Arguments and confrontations never lead to a genuine boiling point. For 108 minutes nothing of any significance happens.
Individually, cast performances are dull. As a group, the ensemble’s performance fits neatly into a socio-economic and urban group that is as tangible as it is boring. Canet is more courageous in the new crime/thriller My Son. Binoche had more of a screen presence in Chocolat, Trois Couleurs: Bleu and Rendez-vous.
The tech crew is on top of its craft: Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (Carlosand Swimming Pool), editor Simon Jacquet, production designer François-Renaud Labarthe (Lady Chatterly) and costume designer Jürgen Doering (Personal Shopper) capture the essence of Assayas’ limited vision.
It’s hard to believe Olivier Assayas was the brilliant writer/director of the riveting crime/drama Carlos (bio of the terrorist Carlos the Jackal). Tough to remember he wrote and filmed the very sensitive drama Summer Hours (adult family members reunite when a parent dies). Those artistic choices set this filmmaker apart and he won awards for his efforts: Carlos, Golden Globe Best Miniseries; Summer Hours Best Foreign Language Film, National Film Critics Society.
Similar to his last film, Personal Shopper, Non-Fiction isn’t awful. It’s just aloof, sterile and unimpressive. Audiences and fans looking for another emotionally-charged Assayas film will just have to wait.