Critic-turned-director Olivier Assayas is one of French cinema's most important voices. After a run at the iconic magazine Cahiers Du Cinéma, where he became known as a specialist in Asian film, Assayas transitioned from writing about movies to making them, initially establishing himself as a screenwriter. There are only a few great Assayas movies, but none could ever be described as predictable. 'Irma Vep' is my favourite of his films, but I'm pretty big on 'Late August, Early September' as well.
Whereas 'Clouds of Sils Maria' and 'Personal Shopper' were Assayas' takes on the Ingmar Bergman psychological drama, 'Non-Fiction' (the French title translates as 'Double Lives', but it was originally titled 'E-Book') is set in Paris' publishing industry and can be considered Assayas' first straight-up Woody Allen-style comedy.
Historically, book publishing works best on film when it functions as a springboard to a different world. 'Fatal Attraction' is about a book editor but, well, is it? A children's book is intentionally printed with pages missing in 'Elf'. But, well, Santa. 'The Last Days of Disco' is partially set at a publishing house, but it's a comedy of manners about New York in the early 1980s. Assayas' 'Non-Fiction' takes a look at what life is like in sophisticated Parisian circles. Spoilers: there's lots of chatting and lots of sex.
Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne, 'The Innocents') is a middle-aged, unkempt novelist who only knows how to write about his personal experiences (mainly, his romantic affairs). Though he maintains that his books aren't strictly autobiographical, they contain enough seedy real-life details to have led at least one ex to publicly accuse Léonard of exploiting his relationships for literary recognition. But though Léonard's books have never sold well, it still comes as a surprise when his stylish longtime publisher and friend Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet, 'La Belle Époque', 'Sink or Swim') passes on the latest manuscript of his "worst-selling" author. Alain's wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche, 'High Life', 'Ghost In The Shell'), is a B-list actress, totes a gun as the star of a popular police procedural called 'Collusion', which she finds to be a joyless slog.
Léonard's new novel, 'Full Stop', recounts a sexual relationship with a woman named Xenia. Alain thinks the character is based on an earlier fling that Léonard had with a talk show host named Stephanie Volkowski. Alain's dislike of this unseen character seems to have played a role in his axing of the book. He's also having an affair with Laure (Christa Théret), a twentysomething digital media strategist hired by his publishing house. Meanwhile, Léonard isn't sure whether his uncaring wife, political consultant Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), knows about his serial cheating, and arrives at every book reading unprepared to answer questions about his personal life, even though it's the only thing anyone ever asks him about.
The film asks: how do we adapt to change?
Assayas' characters love to talk, so the adultery takes backseat to lengthy, amusing discussions about Twitter, blogging, readership numbers, the diminishing importance of critics as the arbiters of taste, the changing face of the publishing business, debates about ongoing technological advances, hyperconnectivity, transience, popularity versus quality, even adult colouring books.
The film asks: how do we adapt to change? The world is constantly changing, but for the characters, the engine of change is the digital revolution. "Writing will dematerialise, it's a fact," Guillame Canet's character says, "Why not just go fully digital?" Selena laments of online piracy: "It's too easy to hide behind modern art theory to download 'Fast & Furious'". In 'Non-Fiction', the middle-aged characters are all reluctant to accept that hard-copy literature is slowly dying, but the millennial characters convince them that it's not the end of the world.
It may be a film about rich people living rich people lives and doing rich people things (and, obviously, sleeping with each other's partners), but 'Non-Fiction' is a funny one with a lot of smart insights.