When is a comedy not really a comedy?
When it’s Non-Fiction (Doubles Vies), a 2018 French film from director Olivier Assayas (who also wrote the screenplay), the trailer for which recalls some madly funny descent into adulterous farce but which in actuality plays more as a neverending literary festival where earnest types are pointedly and passionately discussing whether digital means the end of analaogue expression or whether it’s simply another twist on an already-prevailing theme.
Doesn’t sound terribly farcicial now does it?
The reality is that it isn’t in almost every conceivable way; Non-Fiction is almost inert in its storytelling, one overly-dialogue intense scene after the other where the characters aren’t dislikeable and the ideas are actually intriguing but nothing much really happens.
In fact, it gets a to a point towards the end of the film’s 108-minute running time where you wonder how on earth it is going to tie up its less-than-engrossing storytelling.
This feat of narrative cessation is complicated all the more by a revelation towards the end of the film from one of the main characters, shabby chic writer Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) who possesses a magnetic attraction to men that is in direct proportion to his looks and general outlook on life, to his strangely-unengaged in their relationship wife Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) that he’s had an affair with another character, TV actress Selena (Juliette Binoche).
What frisson of adulterous excitement there is, and it is miniscule to none, is stopped dead in its tracks, a starkly unmoving or unfunny moment that finds its corrollary in the decision by Selena to end her affair with Léonard, and the end of her publisher husband Alain’s (Guillaume Canet) relationship withe digital assistant at the publishing company he heads, Laure (Christa Théret).
It reflects an overall tone in the film where no one seems terribly thrilled about the affairs they’re having, save for Selena and Léonard who actually seem to enjoy each other’s company; but even this spark of illicit connection is undone when Selena ends the affair to a mutual lack of intense emotion on either side. (Save for the fact that Selena is worried that Léonard will write about their relationship in the same way he mines every last event in his life for literary inspiration, going to almost no effort to disguise the real-life inspirations.)
So not only do these characters not seem terribly passionate about their affairs but they are seemingly unmove by end of them.
As a result, it’s well nigh impossible to care too much about too much about the characters which is a pity because they are weirdly likeable in their own way and ferociously, intelligently-engaged with many of the creative issues bedevilling a Twitter-driven world where old-age publishing is having to do battle with the digital usurper.
It’s a pertinent issue for Alain, a digital agnostic who is open to new things but not quite as enamoured about the power of social media and blogging as his curiously-detched head of digital transition Laure who only really lights up when she is discussing the way the new arrival on the publishing scene will wipe all before it.
But will it really?
Selena thinks not and is at pains to make it clear that she is a champion of the printed word, unconvinced by the arguments of the wine-sipping intelligentsia who seem to have nothing better to do than move from one playfully but intensely-argued dinner to another.
There’s nothing wrong with the arguments themselves; Assayas neatly sums up the ideas facing up against each other in time of creative transition, citing, for instance that e-books, once seen as the natural successor to the printed words are falling well behind the surging popularity of audio books and the rise and rise of bookstores who are selling more books than ever.
His competing theses that thoughts expressed digitally are or aren’t worth as much as those committed to paper and ink make lots of sense too; the problem again and again in Non-Fiction is that they feel shoehorned into scenes which don’t feel organic, hostage to the need to put forward as many ideas as possible, whether it feels natural or not.
The result, quite apart from an inert narrative which floats listlessly along, leaving the audience curiously-uninvolved and unmoved, is a film that seems to exists purely as some sort of wine-soaked polemic.
Non-Fiction is saved from feeling entirely like a moving book club of fiery literary ideas by fine performances from all concerned, but also from the stray snippets of humour that do creep in.
Take the running gag throughout the entire film where Selena, clearly concerned that she is trading her hard-won thespian reputation for the commercial success of television – her series, Collusions, is in its third season and she’s been approached to renew for a fourth – corrects anyone who will listen that she doesn’t play a policewoman but a “crisis management expert”.
It plays beautifully in every scene it’s inserted into, a joke that never wears thin and which is cleverly-inverted to even more-amusing effect in the final act of the film.
So too is a some clever name-dropping late in the movie where someone suggests Juliette Binoche could do the audio book of Léonard’s new book, Full Stop, right in front of the actress herself who segeues without pause into telling her husband she could get him Binoche’s agent’s details.
It’s a small thing but it speaks to the witticism and cleverness that seemed promised in the trailer and which never quite arrives – to be honest, it never really arrives – and which the film could really have benefited from.
For the sad truth of the matter is that for all the fine performances, inspired dialogue and well-argued ideas, Non-Fiction, never really flies, a middling film that seems destined to disappear into the same marginalised ether that has now claimed e-books.