'Non-Fiction' and High Art

Non-Fiction (Doubles vies)
(France, 108 min.)
Written and directed by Olivier Assayas
Starring: Guillaume Canet, Juliette Binoche, Vincent Macaigne, Nora Hamzawi, Christa Théret 
man and woman at a table
Courtesy of TIFF
Once, when I was taking a course on literary modernism, the professor asked the class a pressing question. “What is the line between high art and low art?” he queried, leaving a group of theory-versed undergraduate students surprisingly tongue-tied. The book under discussion was Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and, when unfortunately called upon by the professor, I sidestepped the answer by offering an anecdote. I said that being a thrifty student, I bought my books second-hand at various bookstores and while everything else on the reading list—Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf, etc.—appeared on the “literature” shelves, poor Rebecca and her front cover worthy of a Harlequin romance, was relegated to the general “Fiction” section. However, it was the one book on the list that got the cashier really excited. “My Cousin Rachel’s even better, dear,” was her reply.

The point of the story is that one book on the syllabus seemed to be an anomaly because it served mostly to entertain, whereas the other novels were more overt in their interrogations of society and somewhat more adept in their ability to connect readability with social commentary. The question of high art and low art fuels Non-Fiction, the latest film from French auteur Oliver Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria). The film is a perceptively entertaining interrogation of the divides between high art and low art and, more significantly, the elements of lived experience that help us distinguish between the two. Perhaps what relegates Rebecca to the “fiction” section is that it’s obviously a work of Daphne Du Maurier’s (brilliant) imagination, where James Joyce clearly drew upon moments that defined his life and channelled his experiences into prose.

These debates fuel Non-Fiction as Assayas astutely devises highly literate yet perfectly relatable conversations between art aficionados. In something akin to a play on the high and the low, Non-Fiction features two couples, the intellectually arty Alain (Guillaume Canet) and Selena (Juliette Binoche), and the unabashedly basic Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) and Valérie (Nora Hamzawi). Alain is a publisher and Selena is an actress, while Léonard is a novelist and Valérie manages political campaigns. Each party has his or her own idea about respectable culture and integrity, and the film humorously navigates the tricky business of art by illuminating the subjectivity and elusiveness of the search for greatness.

Alain, for example, doesn’t want to publish Léonard’s new book. He’s tired of his friend’s thinly veiled and unimaginative dramatizations of friends, enemies, and sexual conquests. Léonard, however, insists that he can only draw from life, creating “auto-fiction,” as he calls it, in order to develop his characters fully and richly. Readers eat it up, but Alain isn’t interested.

Alain undergoes his own confrontation with the high and the low as his publishing house faces the looming question of going digital. These conversations are finely attune to the discussions going on in the publishing world—in fact, some of them ring 100% true to meetings I’ve had about magazines—and highlight how the debate, for some, isn’t one of modernization, but one of cultural preservation. Alain is a print purist and simply sees a higher value and a richer experience to be found in giving readers the tactile, analogue pleasure and fresh book smell of enjoying words on a page, rather than on a screen. In his conversations with readers and industry peers, Alain defends the value of literature as more than simply the cost-saving efficiencies of print versus e-reader codes. Like Christopher Nolan or Quentin Tarantino resurrecting 70mm film to defy 4K digital defectors, he believes that the question of art lies as much in the format of its production and in its ability to endure over time as it does in the depth and spirituality with which an author suffuses it.

Selena, on the other hand, expresses regret over making the shift to television from theatre work, or “going digital,” perhaps, in actorly terms. Growing weary of her recurring role as a conflict management specialist (re: cop) on a weekly procedural, Selena feels voraciously hungry for a meatier part that asks her to do more than run up some stairs and flash a gun. She gets a kick out of the higher level of fame and celebrity the show offers her though, but recoils when Valérie exclaims how much she loves the series for its binge-worthy escapism. A web of love affairs entangles the quartet as their infidelities provide addictive cravings akin to Netflix marathons, proving that even the haughtiest of art aficionados needs a little escapism once in a while.

Unlike Selena, Léonard doesn’t quite grasp his hack-artist status as Assayas pairs him with the actress, with whom he is having an affair. The problem with Léonard is that he lacks imagination, as evidenced by Selena’s recollections of his fictionalized account of their hookup during Star Wars, which his book depicts as a hook-up during Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winning parable The White Ribbon. The great joke here is that Binoche is a Haneke regular and the film playfully blurs the line between fiction and art when Selena becomes squeamish over he lover’s choice to “heighten” their passion by transplanting the act to a dark art film, rather than a popcorn movie far better suited to multiplex fellatio. The film gets even more meta when someone suggests that the ideal actor to read Léonard’s book might be Juliette Binoche. Selena/Binoche’s reaction indicates just what the Oscar winner probably thinks of that idea--and underlying the whole conversation remains the fact that Binoche made Godzilla, proving that no artist can resist a plum paycheque in the face of artier films.

Non-Fiction is a wonderful companion piece to Assayas’s 2008 gem Summer Hours with its thoughtfully personal reflection on the relationship of art to our everyday lives. While Summer Hours considers how one values art and how the love for art changes from generation to generation, Non-Fiction looks at the elements of art imitating life that enrich culture and our everyday experiences. Fuelled by one of Assayas’s most entertaining and observant scripts and a strong quartet, although Binoche is, as always, the standout, the film is a playfully invigorating and unabashedly intellectual analysis of the (d)evolving nature of art in a globalized world that increasingly favours instant pleasure and ephemeral experiences. It’s a cinematic treat for culture vultures to devour and dissect—as all good works of art are.

Non-Fiction opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on May 10.