'Non-Fiction' Serves Up Sex, Lies and Literature
Another winner from French writer-director Olivier Assayas
"The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (1988)
"Irma Vep" (1996)
"Clouds of Sils Maria" (2014)
Only the French could pull off a film that so smartly and charmingly debates the future of literature in a digital age while also exploring the comic complexities of human relationships. Writer-director Olivier Assayas casually points out our dependence on technology not only through his main characters but also by having people in the background of shots using cell phones and computers. Even conversations are cluttered with references to emails, Tweets and digital translations.
The film opens with author Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) and his longtime publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet) meeting for lunch. Leonard writes what he calls “feel-bad” novels directly based on his own life and love affairs. Alain runs a well-respected publishing house that is trying to adapt to people’s changing reading habits. Leonard’s books are not exactly bestsellers and the two joke that the latest didn’t “kill many trees.” But the two also get into a serious and amusing discussion about the value of printed books in a world more obsessed with viral tweets.
Later that night Alain and his actress wife Selena (the lovely Juliet Binoche) continue the discussion of literature with their dinner guests, who just don’t think people can afford books anymore. To which Selena retorts that people have no trouble spending more than $1,000 on a computer but then balk at paying for a book or music or a movie. People just want everything free and instantaneous.
The film raises some interesting ideas about how people may be writing more than ever with tweets, blogs, and emails but does that mean that there is more information out there and more ideas being shared. Characters argue whether tweets are the new Haiku or harbingers of our inability to write well. Leonard condemns what he sees as the narcissism of Twitter but Alain points out that there is equal narcissism in Leonard’s radical rejection of Twitter and the internet. Plus, as a businessman, Alain has to look to the future to consider what happens to printed books in a digital age and what if the notion of e-books that he was banking on turns out to be wrong.
All these ideas flow naturally in the story from a set of characters that are intelligent and connected to the world of publishing or writing in some way. These characters also entertain us with their very human foibles. Leonard and Selena have an affair that Leonard can’t help writing about but then he worries Alain will recognize the thinly veiled character as his wife. Alain has an affair with the woman he hires to help the company go digital but then realizes how attached he is to the value of the printed book.
The cast is a delight. These are all smart, funny, mature performers who are not afraid to play flawed characters and find humor in their imperfections. It is also refreshing to see a film where marital affairs don't lead to hysterical sitcom antics but rather to some thoughtful introspection into what relationships mean.
“Non-Fiction” is a sharply scripted, engaging work from Assayas. It makes us think about how we consume the written word in this 21st century. It also allows us to enjoy the company of a quartet of characters trying to deal with change in their lives.