Olivier Assayas crafts films of marvelous depths, simultaneously cinematic and literary in the richness of their pleasures, where the words people speak — and they can speak a lot — are only part of the picture. As much as Assayas enjoys verbal tangos, he demands that his audience pay attention to the footwork, to the foundations generating the words. Breaking from the style of recent successes “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Personal Shopper,” his latest, “Non-Fiction,” harks back to some of the director’s more openly philosophical earlier works. Yet this story of two couples dealing with change in their personal and professional lives, so packed with intellectual sparring, gets progressively lighter as it moves along, acknowledging the primacy of human interaction (foibles and all) over doctrine. It’s also full of humor, which will help sell the picture to critics and viewers hungry for smart French fare.
Assayas immediately plunges us into the issues at hand with a meeting between literary editor Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet) and novelist Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne). Both are recognizable types: Alain has short grey hair, presents well in a jacket (no tie), and speaks with warm authority on books and the challenges facing the publishing world. Léonard defines the unmade bed look and has an immature ego preventing him from ever stepping outside himself. Over lunch Alain guides the conversation, believing he’s gently explaining that he won’t be publishing Léonard’s latest novel, but subtlety isn’t the author’s strong-suit and the decision takes him by surprise.
It’s not just that Léonard’s work isn’t developing; the big problem is his novels are all auto-fiction, the kinds of romans à clef for which almost everyone already has the key. Alain is uncomfortable with the way the author exploits his celebrity lovers, whose identities seem so transparent notwithstanding name changes, but for Léonard, “write what you know” is a mantra for creativity. Later that evening, Alain and his TV-actress wife Selena (Juliette Binoche) host a dinner party where the discussion is all about changes in the publishing world: e-readers vs. books, literacy in the age of Twitter and chat messages, blogs vs. printed sources. The arguments ricochet around the room, with Alain acknowledging a need to move with the times while refusing to completely jettison the longstanding models he loves.
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Alain isn’t completely engaged with Selena’s concerns, especially about the value of publishing Léonard’s latest manuscript, and she’s unafraid to counter his opinions. In another part of town, something similar can be said about Léonard’s vibrant partner Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), a left-wing political consultant more focused on an upcoming election than on coddling his bruised self-esteem. Perhaps the source of Alain’s distraction could be that he’s sleeping with Laure (Christa Théret), the overconfident young woman his publishing house hired to oversee “digital transition.” At the same time, Selena’s praise for Léonard’s new novel isn’t exactly altruistic, since they’ve been having an affair for six years.
Assayas is such an expert writer that the increasing lightness of tone takes you by surprise. One minute, you’re questioning your own opinions about the viability of libraries in the digital age, and the next you’re laughing out loud at a salacious anecdote involving Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon.” Even as personal peccadillos overturn philosophical musings, at no time is the seriousness of Alain’s concerns belittled, nor does Assayas treat Laure’s “sweep out the old” battle cry with anything other than respect. This consideration for diverse opinions isn’t about fence sitting: it comes from an understanding that intelligent viewpoints need to be heard, and yet it’s hard to imagine that his own leanings stray far from Alain’s desire to retain traditional forms of literacy while cautiously welcoming the inevitable shifts.
Even so, not everything people say should be taken at face value. There’s a discussion of the famous line in “The Leopard,” “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” The sentence exists in the novel, but not at the end, as the character states, nor is it spoken by the Prince of Salinas (a character deeply resistant to change) but Tancredi Falconieri, the voice of a new generation. Both Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s characters and those of Assayas are confronting radical changes in their worlds, and the only certainty for all is that things cannot stay the same.
Only actors of the caliber and intelligence of Canet and Binoche can toss off their sparring lines with the ease and conviction of stimulating dinner-party conversations, conveying warmth, brains and fallibility in equal measure: You want to join in the discussion around the table, hoping you can keep up. Macaigne’s role doesn’t stray far from the actor’s well-defined screen persona, but Hamzawi, a stand-up comedian in her first leading role, exudes a high-octane sardonic wit that bodes extremely well for a future before the cameras. DP Yorick Le Saux also shot Assayas’ previous two films, “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Personal Shopper,” yet the look here is very different, more flexible with diffused light that lends a sense of realism to it all. The French and English titles, “Doubles Vies” and “Non-Fiction,” handily encompass two of the movie’s themes, though “Non-Fiction” is the cannier name, making us question not just double lives, but the limits of fiction’s intrusions into reality.