LFF review: ‘Non-Fiction’ is both superficially chic and deeply intelligent
15 October 2018 10:03
When Olivier Assayas introduced his new film Non-Fiction at the UK premier on Saturday night, he said he had wondered whether it would ever make it beyond the borders of France. ‘It’s the kind of French film that should come with a warning,’ he joked. And, indeed, it couldn’t be more French if it tried: 106 minutes of attractive couples having guilt-free affairs while discussing the death of publishing over glasses of wine. I’m not just being glib; Non-Fiction is both superficially chic and deeply intelligent. Peppered with literary and filmic references — from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958), through Bergman’s The Winter Light (1963), not to mention a rather risqué running joke about Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) — it’s a film that is up front about its cleverness, but also manages to often be extremely funny.
At first, it seems like a departure from Assayas’s most recent works — Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and Personal Shopper (2016) — both of which, although very much set in the everyday world we recognise, played with elements of mystery and the unreal with uncanny effect. As such, one might think to read Non-Fiction as a counter-balance: Assayas bringing us back down to earth with a bump; so much so in fact, that one of his key protagonists, Leonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne), is an author addicted to auto-fiction. He can’t stop writing about his own life, particularly his affairs with a series of well-known women. But, with the narrative’s emphasis on the changes the publishing industry is going through — the rise in popularity of e-books as the sales of physical volumes falls, along with that of blogs and Twitter compared with traditional printed longform — there’s an interesting through line that makes something of a triptych of the three films. From Clouds of Sils Maria’s depiction of a middle-aged film star navigating the brave new world of twenty-first-century celebrity, through Personal Shopper’s exploration of an iPhone as a potential portal for communicating with the dead, and now this depiction of the everyday onslaught of digitization, Assayas is exploring how we are adapting to the changes wrought in our lives by new forms of technology.
Leonard, it will come as no surprise, is something of a traditionalist; his editor Alain (Guillaume Canet), meanwhile, is more progressive. He can’t bury his head in the sand and hope to keep his job, but his liberalism is also helped, no doubt, by the fact he’s having an affair with Laure (Christa Theret) who’s been hired by the publishing house he works for to oversee its ‘digital transition.’ Juliette Binoche plays Alain’s wife Selena, a TV actor who’s worried she’s stuck in a professional rut. She knows her husband is having an affair, but isn’t that worried about it, not least because she’s being unfaithful too. She’s been sleeping with Leonard for the past six years, which explains why she puts up a bit of a fight when Alain turns down her lover’s new novel. And as for Leonard’s partner Valerie (Nora Hamzawi), well she’s no fool; she’s read his books, so she knows perfectly well what he’s up to, but with enviable Gallic cool she shrugs it off, more concerned by the task of trying to keep certain less than savoury facts about her socialist politician boss out of the press.
The actors are excellent throughout, ensuring the film never veers over into navel-gazing, and thanks to their expert delivery of the dialogue — which itself is as smart as it is sharp — Non-Fiction gives the impression of effortless elegance. The film’s original French title, Doubles vies —’double lives’ — is a more obvious comment on what we’re watching: members of the Parisian intelligentsia dealing with the onslaught of middle-age, each caught in some way between the personal and the professional, idealism and pragmatism, truth and lies, reality and fiction — though the latter, of course, is implied in the English version of the title. This is a wry comedy that asks important questions about real life, real love and real art.