Olivier Assayas has a strong claim to being French cinema's foremost keeper of antiquities, drawn as he is to that which has gone or is going the way of the dodo. Irma Vep, his breakthrough film of 1996, was informed by silent cinema serials; he made a three-hour movie about the porcelain business (2000's Les destinées sentimentales) and a two-hour drama about inherited knick-knacks (2008's Summer Hours); and he spent much of 2012's Something in the Air expressing a fond nostalgia for a radical student politics that vanished into the ether some time shortly after 1968. Now Assayas has turned his gaze to... publishing, an industry either on life-support or in flux, depending on your source. Non-Fiction introduces us to Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet), the urbane, pragmatic managing director of a prestigious Parisian imprint, as he heads out to lunch with Leonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne), a self-involved author who also happens to be a longstanding pal. A note of disquiet between the pair is discernible right from Alain's summary of the state of French publishing ("Fewer readers, more books. But more tensions"); the scene heads towards a droll punchline that signals this is Assayas turning his hand to something lighter than usual. We follow Alain home to the swanky pad he shares with actress wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), and into a dinner-party confab over the extent to which the Internet - and the ability to self-publish - has changed the business for good. Our publishers are evidently eating as well as ever, but here are two longish conversations - the first of several here - which formulate the question that hangs over the film, a question the Tom Tom Club were asking as far back as 1981: what are words worth?
It will be, then, a film of arguably disproportionate interest to those of us who work with words on a daily basis. Assayas is preaching at moderate length to that sizeable and longstanding audience for talky French movies in which impossibly well-read individuals sit round in cafes quoting from movies and generally putting the world to rights. (He is both compelled by tradition, and part of one.) There are windy stretches of jawing here where you spy the writer-director getting carried away at his laptop or typewriter (you wouldn't put it past Assayas to still be working on the latter): this is the privilege of the festival-supported name auteur. And you often catch him using those words to hammer his ideas into a cinematic centrism that can seem evasive or non-committal. Having established the tenuous superiority of the printed word, Non-Fiction writes in a winsome head of digital transition (Christa Théret) who first briefs Alain as to the ways of the new world, then takes him to a nearby hotel room for debriefing; in a further narrative wrinkle, we learn that she's bisexual, and working through some issues with a pre-existing girlfriend. Each scene here raises an issue, kicks it around for a few minutes, and then refuses to pick a side.
There's a certain Diet Renoir skill in this equanimity: it permits us to see how everybody on screen - not just Alain, but Leonard and Selena, engaged in their own affair, which explains that earlier awkwardness over lunch - is doubling back on their word. (The film's original title is Doubles vies, which fits.) A certain pleasure, too: like an afternoon spent roaming a bookstore or antiques shop, Non-Fiction permits some escape from the extremes of discourse with which the wider world is presently beset. It does feel like a limitation, however, that the whole film can be reduced to two lines of dialogue: "Is this a good thing?" "I have no idea." Assayas has become a master of elegant equivocation, pushing back against society's rush to judgement via his insistence we may need more time to form a concrete or informed opinion - the time to read a book, say. Yet some viewers are bound to need more conflict to keep them interested than Non-Fiction's assiduous proof correction really allows for. When your every scene ends with a shrug - however stylish or well-performed - you can't really be surprised when your audience emerges doing much the same thing.
What kept me at least semi-interested - and here I may be giving into the same equivocation the writer-director is himself fond of - is that, even in a minor film such as this, Assayas remains a keen observer of the modern world's idiosyncrasies: characters who take three separate digital devices off-charge before leaving in the morning, and who wind up fielding calls on two of them simultaneously. (Here's the lighter side of the phantom texting that sustained Assayas' previous Personal Shopper.) A keen observer of people, too. Non-Fiction comes closest to being the comedy it's otherwise a little too uptight to be in those scenes involving Macaigne - a local lynchpin, reminiscent of a heavier-set Mark Ruffalo, best remembered as the Showgirls aficionado among the hip young gunslingers of Mia Hansen-Løve's Eden - who deploys his bulk as cover for a comically sensitive soul: watch his Leonard grimace at even neutral descriptions of his work ("a demanding oeuvre, still little known"). Assayas even makes smart use of that bland handsomeness that has made Canet a dud to watch elsewhere. The actor has been well cast as the kind of gilded, ingratiating functionary a modern publishing house might well employ to carry them forward - but Alain is also one of those straight white dudes whose power and privilege is being challenged at the start of the 21st century. And while Selena is really no more than a supporting role, Assayas continues the project initiated by 2014's Clouds of Sils Maria by giving the over-worked Binoche new notes to play: some light action on the set of the TV show the character is stagnating on, the wearing of a furry trapper's hat - the latter altogether cuter than the nudging dad joke Assayas crowbars into the coda for her. That English-language title requires a change of word order, or an outright rewrite: this is non-essential fiction, really, but it has funny, perceptive footnotes.
Non-Fiction is playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.