'Non-Fiction' Review: Olivier Assayas' Latest Film Is A Droll Delight [TIFF]

Olivier Assayas' Non-Fiction shows one of the great contemporary filmmakers at his most perceptive and loquacious. His latest film strays away from the mysticism of recent entrancing efforts like Clouds of Silas Maria and Personal Shopper, instead portraying an hour and 45 minutes of exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) conversations about the state of the arts and society at large. I couldn't take notes fast enough to capture all his brilliant observations on everything from the discussion on the decline of the critic as tastemaker to a sly bit of visual humor ridiculing the multiplicity of electronic devices in our lives.

Non-Fiction proves enlightening and entertaining in equal measure, and it never strains to sell the droll observations it makes. Assayas smartly builds a film around artists and experts in intellectual circles. They would have these kinds of conversations about Twitter and the evolution of writing anyway, albeit with slightly less self-awareness around their own ridiculousness and pretension.

The locus of the film is Guillaume Canet's Alain, a big wig in the Parisian publishing scene. At work, he's trying to artfully fend off the latest manuscript from Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), which he thinks is a self-indulgent work of thinly veiled autobiography, or autofiction. But little does Alain know that he's seriously misjudged the honesty of the book, and Assayas' depiction of scenes from Leonard's chaotic personal life routinely demonstrates just how comical Alain's misread is.

On a grander scale, Alain must grapple with seismic changes in his industry. He attempts to a strike a balanced approach between Luddism and futurism, trying to offset his pragmatic default by hiring fresh-faced Laure (Christa Théret) to ensure his company can survive the latest digital upheaval. Everyone wants to choose the change, not suffer it. Assayas acknowledges the benefits and limits of both with a particular emphasis on the paradoxical case of the E-book, a format which was actually the film's original title. A decade ago, industry experts predicted e-readers would save a hemorrhaging business. But now, their growth has stalled and the next salvation for publishers feels like a complete pendulum swing backwards: audiobooks.

Meanwhile, at home, Alain's wife Selena (Juliette Binoche) debates whether or not to continue starring on a lucrative but vacuous television show. Like in Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas depicts the culture he derides through his own point of view, making sure we all know how silly he finds it. Yet Non-Fiction never settles for merely taking potshots at pieces of popular entertainment. If Assayas punches down, it's in an attempt to reach an understanding of the transformation of communication and how the effects of these changes will echo throughout culture.

Non-Fiction brims over with Assayas' wisdom that the only thing more futile than resisting change is attempting to predict it. The filmmaker derives constant humor out of the characters' inflated confidence in their ability to forecast major developments given their inability to see the truth staring them in the face. They all misread of the present state of affairs in their lives, never fathoming their partners would have affairs even as they have affairs themselves.

So, rather than turning Non-Fiction into his personal TED Talk, Assays lets his film evolve organically into a screwball comedy centered around Leonard. The author who mines his own life for art ends up stumbling into the most compelling story of all. It's this charming genre change-up that ends up being the biggest takeaway from the film. While it's great having Assayas around to regale us with observations like "post-truth is living in a fictional world ruled by prejudices," even the smartest pundits offering similar commentary could never spin a narrative as deftly as he does.

/Film rating: 7 out of 10