We live in an age when the very concept of personal privacy is under assault on so many levels that people who use any sort of social media are forced to choose between heeding the warnings of Edward Snowden and isolating ourselves completely from prevailing modes of communication, on the one hand, and resigning ourselves to the assumption that we have nothing worth the trouble of hiding, on the other. However carefully we tweak our Facebook privacy settings, there’s very little middle ground left to us. How this paradigm shift plays out in romantic as well as professional relationships is the subtext of the newest film comedy from French screenwriter/director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper, Summer Hours).
This movie was originally supposed to be called E-Book, but that got dropped as “a bit too technical and too cold,” according to the director. It ended up with the title Doubles Vies (Double Lives) for the Francophone market – tipping us off that, deep down, this movie is a classic French sex farce – and Non-Fiction for us Anglophones. The latter title is a reference to the inability of the character Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) to write a novel that isn’t a roman à clef based on the latest in his own endless parade of sexual entanglements, or to restrain himself from basing his current female lead character on his most recent ex-girlfriend. In his head, as long as the work turns out good, it doesn’t matter what inspires him – or what real-world social fallout these exes end up having to endure.
The trouble for Léonard is that the quality of his work is uneven, and its marketability even more so. Our story begins as his publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet) is taking him out to lunch and delicately trying to tell him that the venerably literary imprint he manages is declining, for the first time in decades, to make an offer for his latest manuscript. While a competent, perhaps even gifted author, Léonard has gotten into a rut, writing essentially the same confessional stuff over and over. And Alain is feeling the winds of change in the publishing industry blowing cold down his neck. He has recently hired Laure (Christa Théret), a young hotshot who’s up on all the trends in e-publishing, to oversee the “digital transition” of his company. Although Alain has a seemingly happy marriage to an actress named Serena (the ever-sublime Juliette Binoche), his intellectual sparring with Laure over the future of publishing seems to be a turn-on, because they’re already having an affair. Serena suspects, but also has some secrets of her own, along with some plans to reinvent her own career, stagnating in a successful-but-unstimulating TV cop show.
Non-Fiction starts off as an exceedingly talky movie, and stays that way for most of its length. Alain and Serena’s Bohemian, artsy, left-leaning social circle is consumed with highly contemporary debate about whether or not paper books are dead, whether blogging qualifies as real writing, where to draw the line between entertainment and art, whether the Internet is democratizing information or isolating people in silos of their own prejudices and so on. For his part, Léonard has never read a blog and has no clue what his readership is saying about him online, until the once-avid crowd at a bookstore event gives him some hostile pushback about his latest novel.
That chilly reception, paired with the unexpected turndown from his longtime publisher, begins to shake Léonard out of his self-satisfied torpor in tiny increments – especially once his live-in girlfriend Valérie, bracingly played by the comedienne Nora Hamzawi, refuses to set aside her preoccupation with her own career as an aide to a socialist political candidate to offer him much in the way of sympathy. Valérie suspects that Léonard’s pattern of serial infidelity has not abated, and wonders who inspired the heroine in his latest manuscript. But she becomes the spokesperson in this story for the attitude that maybe ignorance is more blissful than total frankness in a relationship, bringing the Internet privacy debate to a more personal level.
For all the focus of this clever screenplay on topical issues of our digital-driven society, it dawns on the viewer by the end of the second act that what we’re enjoying here is fundamentally a French sex farce in highbrow clothing. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that. French cinema, like French culture, has always been good at this sort of thing: the mind and the body lustily coexisting, in a way that reminds us with a jolt how fundamentally Puritanism has soaked into our American bones. Viewers who can transcend their default tendency to want to draw a clear line between the two should find Non-Fiction a tonic treat.