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Olivier Assayas' Non-Fiction is a talky, breathlessly intelligent film with subtitles set in the economically privileged world of French publishing that offers its audience no definitive resolution. It's squarely in Eric Rohmer/(good) Woody Allen territory. That is to say that it doesn't really fit most Americans' idea of a summer movie.

That's fine. Next door in the cinema, the X-Men rage.

Non-Fiction

88 Cast: Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet, Vincent Macaigne, Nora Hamzawi, Christa Theret

Director: Olivier Assayas

Rating: R, for some language and sexuality/nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

It starts with an awkward lunch meeting between Alain (Guillaume Canet), who runs a venerable Parisian publishing house, and Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), a rumpled novelist who specializes in lightly fictionalized accounts of his own love affairs. Leonard hopes -- expects -- Alain to publish his new novel Full Stop.

Preliminary to the actual lunch, and any discussion of Leonard's book, they talk about a recent political novel that has run into legal trouble because the author insufficiently disguised the models for the characters. "I thought no one reads books anymore," Leonard shrugs, and Alain points out that it doesn't matter once the press and bloggers catch the scent of scandal.

This exchange is fraught in part because Leonard works in a similar vein, mining his messy life for his books. He too gives his characters aliases but it's not difficult to guess who he's talking about, though Alain might have a blind spot considering that one of Leonard's conquests in the book is Selena (Juliette Binoche), who's married to Alain.

Or maybe he simply didn't read Leonard's manuscript that closely. In any case, he's not interested in his friend's work, which has become repetitive and self-aggrandizing. He wishes Leonard would go back to writing stories instead of "autofiction."

But if Alain is not aware of Selena's dalliance with Leonard, she's very aware of Alain's affair with millennial Laure (Christa Theret), whom he's hired to help his company adjust to a digitally disrupted environment. That might be another reason she's lobbying for Alain to publish Leonard's book.

Meanwhile, Leonard is determined to prevent his wife, Valerie (Nora Hamzawi), a consultant to a socialist politician, from finding out about his latest affair.

All this makes the movie sound like bedroom farce material. But while Assayas employs a familiar matrix of secrets and lies as a structure, he's actually delving into some interesting psychological and philosophical territory with these exceptional actors, each of whom presents us with a character rooted in truth.

Leonard is a wonderfully, artfully slovenly man who rejects convention -- he cares nothing for money; were it not for his wife he'd be living on the streets -- while taking his station in society for granted. For him, it's all material.

Alain feels the need to enforce certain standards, but he's willing to entertain new ideas. Why can't publishers divorce themselves from the "fabrication" process, leaving the old ink-on-paper model behind for electronic presences and absences? You'd still have the basic relationship between publisher and writer -- it would still be something like a book.

But Alain, thoughtful, reasonable and a bit condescending, might be falling under the thrall of Laure, who equates tweets with haiku and is excited about the inevitable extinction of books and libraries. Meanwhile Selena, who acts in a popular French cop show, prefers to travel with a single analog book than her entire library. She doesn't feel guilty about any part she might be playing in the dumbing-down of society, but she does worry that the gig is beneath her.

And she has Laure pegged for her "brilliant business-school-grad sexual predator style."

Meanwhile, in a minor irony, Valerie is the least corrupt and most earnest character in the film. But like all the rest -- even Laure, who doesn't realize it yet -- her place in the world is also provisional.

On one level the movie is about how and when the various characters will find out about their partners' cheating, but the real appeal lies in the conversations on which we get to eavesdrop. Lots of what gets said sounds ominous -- it's only the elderly who read, and old ladies love Kindles -- and some of its feels vaguely anachronistic.

All the talk of blogs makes me wonder if Assayas hasn't been working on this script for years, or maybe blogs are still relevant in France. Still, it seems odd to have a character boasting about his 5,000 hits a day. He'd more likely be going on about his Twitter or Instagram following -- which, considering how those platforms traffic in bursts of characters and pictures rather than long-form essays, might have made the point better.

Another minor quibble might be had with the English title, which doesn't fit the movie as well as a straight translation of the French one -- Doubles vies -- would have. Double Lives would have played on at least a couple of levels, both the characters' secret affairs and the way they exist both in their (lovely, enviable) bourgeois reality and in the virtual one.

Sparkly and sad, Non-Fiction is a witty movie about the existential crisis facing readers and writers with some casual French adultery mixed in. While its breeziness might tempt some to rate it as second-tier Assayas beneath such modern classics as Summer Hours (2008) and Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), in many ways it feels like a worthy companion piece to Summer Hours. While that film was about the loss of cultural heritage and the devaluation of art, Non-Fiction is about the dawning of the post-literate world.

It's not a farce at all; it's a horror movie.

MovieStyle on 06/07/2019

Print Headline: Non-Fiction

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