'Non-Fiction' ('Doubles vies'): Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Ad Vitam Distribution
Juliette Binoche and Guillaume Canet in 'Non-Fiction.'
A new treasure from one of France's most vital filmmakers.

The latest from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, a comedy set in the Parisian publishing world starring Juliette Binoche and Guillaume Canet, premieres in Venice before making the fall festival rounds.

After an unexpectedly invigorating “Kristen Stewart in Europe” detour (Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper), Olivier Assayas, that most restless, cosmopolitan, border-defying of French directors, is back with a film that, on paper, seems tres français: a comedy of art, adultery and midlife crises set in the Parisian publishing world.

But while the characters and milieu in Non-Fiction (premiering in Venice before moving on to Telluride, TIFF and NYFF) are Gallic through and through, Assayas’ gaze remains, as ever, fixed outward. The filmmaker’s interest in the forces of globalization — a thematic through-line in a body of work that runs the spectrum from freaky genre exercises to classy period pieces — indeed proves very much present in this witty, resonant, richly perceptive portrait of people caught in the throes of a fast-changing country.

As in several Assayas movies, the France of Non-Fiction is one where sentences are peppered with English buzzwords and binge-ready TV shows are a hotter topic of discussion than cinema d’auteur. The movie therefore makes a fine companion piece to two of the writer-director’s latest, greatest works: Summer Hours, about three siblings navigating a prestigious inheritance, and Clouds of Sils Maria, which revolves around a middle-aged star raging against the demands of 21st-century celebrity. Each of these three films, in its way, explores the impact of worldwide economic, technological and cultural shifts on individual and collective French identities.

Non-Fiction has neither the sublime wistfulness of Summer Hours nor the luscious mysteriousness of Clouds. Its tone tends toward the farcical, and the pacing is so brisk that one might miss the intricacy of its narrative design, the intelligence with which it unravels its ideas and the sinuous grace of Assayas’ filmmaking. But this is a major entry in a fascinating career — a treat for the director’s devotees as well as French-cinema buffs in general.

Powered by a quartet of superb performances — including another jewel-like turn from Juliette Binoche — Non-Fiction begins as a talky study of the Parisian intelligentsia, then gradually tightens its emotional grip. There are chuckles and even guffaws throughout, though the comedy is streaked with despair, and also great tenderness. It’s the latest evidence of the director’s gift for tackling grave subjects with the lightest of touches; the film flows airily along, then knocks you off-balance with the weight of its insights and implications.

The story opens on renowned editor Alain (Guillaume Canet) meeting with author Leonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne), whose novels he has been publishing for years. The two are temperamental (and sartorial) opposites: Alain is a smiley smooth operator with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and chic fitted clothes; Leonard is a rumpled aging hipster whose awkward affability masks his disgruntlement.

The differences between the men are ideological, too, providing Non-Fiction with a dialectical tension that ripples out beyond the pair, pulling in the people closest to them. Leonard, an avowed anti-materialist and technophobe, gripes about how blogs and social media have vulgarized the art of the written word. Alain also harbors misgivings about the direction of his industry. But whether out of survival instinct or conviction, he’s willing to swim with the tide; praising the internet for expanding access to — and the very definition of — literary arts, he sounds like a believer.

Alain and Leonard’s interactions in this sequence are a tour de force of unease, full of awkward silences and perceived slights. But that’s just a warm-up for the brutal bottom line: For the first time ever, Alain refuses to publish Leonard’s new manuscript.

That rejection is Non-Fiction’s catalyst, propelling both men toward professional and personal reckonings — the latter involving the women in their lives. Alain’s wife — and mother of their young son — Selena (Binoche) is a dissatisfied actress toiling away at her fourth season playing a policewoman on a popular TV show. When Alain tells her he won’t be publishing Leonard’s latest, she bristles — a reaction that may have something to do with the fact that she and Leonard have been having an affair for years. Meanwhile, Leonard’s wife, Valerie (scene-stealer Nora Hamzawi), is so busy putting out fires for the Socialist candidate she advises that she barely registers her husband’s latest predicament.

The third key female figure is Laure (Christa Theret), a young, coolly seductive go-getter whom Alain hires to lead his publishing house into the digital age. This being a French film, she also ends up in his bed.

It’s a bit daunting to find your way into Non-Fiction. From the first frame, the viewer is plunged into the middle of conversations that are dense, even dizzying, with clashing opinions: Kindle vs. books, print vs. web, art vs. entertainment, and so on. And the characters — with their espresso sipping and wine savoring, their smokes and sexual dalliances, their constant discoursing and casually gorgeous apartments spilling over with books — at times tiptoe toward the insufferable. But Assayas is alive to their flaws, their yearnings and exasperating contradictions; they’re thrillingly complex.

Much of that is thanks to the screenplay’s bracing lack of schematism. The people in Non-Fiction aren’t symbolic stand-ins; they’re relatably all over the place, torn between ideals and obligations, private desires and public postures, tradition and novelty. Though Alain has a genuine reverence for great literature, he’s haunted by a fear of being left behind by the innovations reshaping his field. Selena is instinctual and independent, but repeatedly makes choices of the mind rather than the heart. Leonard is clearly hungry for the kind of success he claims to disdain. Valerie’s political idealism is at odds with the harsh pragmatism she espouses in her romantic relationship. And Laure’s relentless ambition belies a certain sincerity, a determination to contribute in a way she sees as constructive.

The movie’s somewhat generic French title, Doubles vies (Double Lives), is therefore more apt than its English one. All the main characters juggle, and have difficulty reconciling, their inner and outer lives. Each is adept at the very French custom (I say this having lived in France for 12 years) of artfully concealing one’s true feelings behind irony, intellectualizing and small talk. We rarely see them let down their guard.

Canet (In the Name of My Daughter) has too often relied on his hearthrobby smirk, but he’s persuasive here as a man whose charm and confidence mask agonizing uncertainties. Macaigne (Eden) layers Leonard’s insecurity and immaturity with poignant longing. And Hamzawi, a revelation, is hilariously acerbic but also pierces Valerie’s prickly persona with sudden shards of vulnerability.

Best of all, unsurprisingly, is Binoche, who’s so good so often that it’s easy to take her for granted. The actress frequently plays women whose volatile emotions are right at the surface, but Selena has secrets and defenses, and Binoche’s brilliance here is her capacity to show us every crack in that armor. (She also gets some of the funniest bits; Selena’s outrage at Leonard’s depiction of one their trysts in his novel is a high point.)

Though Non-Fiction is filled with group conversation scenes — dinner parties, literary salons, etc. — the meat of the film lies in its tete-a-tetes. Working with DP Yorick Le Saux, Assayas presents these mostly in combative shot/reverse shot, though he sometimes moves the camera almost imperceptibly toward the character talking or listening, as if inviting us to figure out what these people are really thinking. Certain scenes — such as a debate between Alain and Selena over Leonard’s new book — are as fraught and suspenseful as something out of a spy thriller.

What sets Assayas apart from some of his critically adored contemporaries is that his films aren’t just formally elegant; they’re brimming with ideas. In Non-Fiction, as in much of his work, he celebrates France — the seductive beauty and richness of its culture — even as he pokes, prods and challenges it. He sees possibility in an increasingly interconnected world (his own movies, with their international casts and multilingualism, are themselves a product of that interconnectedness). He also sees loss, humor and absurdity. France is a country known for struggling with change. Part of Assayas’ greatness as a filmmaker is his ability to make that struggle look so deeply human.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: CG Cinema

U.S. Distributor: Sundance Selects
Writer-director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Juliette Binoche, Vincent Macaigne, Christa Theret, Nora Hamzawi, Pascal Greggory
Producers: Charles Gillibert, Olivier Pere
Executive producers: Sylvie Barthet
Director of photography: Yorick Le Saux
Editor: Simon Jacquet
Production designer: Francois-Renaud Labarthe
Casting: Antoinette Boulat

106 minutes