Olivier Assayas is one of the world’s great filmmakers, and his oeuvre is filled with cerebral stories that tackle isolation (“Personal Shopper”), commerce (“Demonlover”), terrorism (“Carlos”), coming of age (“Cold Water”) and filmmaking (“Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Irma Vep”). But his latest, “Non-Fiction,” is more in line with his 2009 film “Summer Hours,” a talky and very French drama that deals with human relationships.
In the case of his latest film, it doesn’t matter that Assayas is working in a more minor key. The film is often funny, smart and observant about the world in which we currently live. On the surface, the picture tells the story of two couples – Alain (Guillaume Canet) and Selena (Juliette Binoche) and Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) and Valerie (Nora Hamzawi) – who occasionally dabble in infidelity. But it’s also concerned with matters concerning our modern world – politics, lives spent online, the commodification of art and how literature survives in a digital age.
In the film, Alain is the editor of a well-established publishing house whom we first meet delivering some bad news to Leonard, a writer whose recent work, mostly about himself and his torrid affairs, has devolved into navel gazing. Alain is trying to keep the business afloat, but realizing that selling books isn’t as easy as it used to be. His younger co-workers try to persuade him of the value of e-books and reading novels on an iPhone, but he’s wary at best on the matter.
Selena, on the other hand, considers the world to be overrun by philistines, despite her small contribution to its decline. She’s an actress whose career mostly consists of her playing a role on a by-the-numbers police TV drama. She’s often praised by enthusiastic fans, whom she corrects when they reference her character as a “cop” by noting that she’s a “crisis management expert.” But mostly, she’s over the whole thing.
Meanwhile, Leonard tries – but fails – to gain the sympathy of Valerie, who’s wrapped up in her work for a socialist politician, after his latest tome is turned down by Alain. He also takes part in a series of radio interviews and bookshop readings to promote his book, but is pummeled for using too much of his personal life in the novel and, as a result, crossing the line when using the women in his life as fictional characters.
Then, there’s the matter of two affairs involving three of the four characters. I won’t divulge any more than that, other than to note that the film’s funniest running gag involves an often-referenced story involving a sexual rendezvous in a theater showing a serious European art film on fascism.
Accuse me of being an old fuddy duddy, but I found myself compelled by the characters’ resigned wariness regarding art in the digital age. One character points out that change doesn’t necessarily always usher in positive new developments. Much like two upcoming films yet unseen by me – Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which apparently involve characters considering their place in a changing world – Assayas’ latest film ponders the degradation of art – whether it’s film, literature, music or anything else – in an age of short attention spans and obsession with gadgets.
It may seem as if Assayas is doing light and breezy with his latest, but there’s a fair amount bubbling beneath the surface. “Non-Fiction” is a witty and funny relationship comedy paired with a thesis on how the digital revolution is a dream to some, but a nightmare for others. As is the case with most Assayas films, it’s well worth seeing.