Talk. Talk. Talk. That’s what goes on in Non-Fiction, the new comedy of surprising gravity from writer-director Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria, Irma Vep). Oh, but what talk: a tumble of words flowing from a master. There’s sex, of course. — Non-Fiction is a French film — but in this look at the publishing world in the age of the digital invasion, Assayas is laughing on the edge of an abyss.
The film plunges us into a meeting that cool, collected publisher, Alain (Guillaume Canet), is having with an unmade bed of an author named Leonard (Vincent Macaigne, hilarious). Leonard writes gossipy novels that Alain haughtily disdains, refusing to publish the latest of Leonard’s thinly disguised accounts of his own tumultuous love life. Alain wonders how Leonard’s vibrant, political consultant wife, Valérie (standup comic Nora Hamzawi, showing formidable chops as an actress), puts up with this rumpled jerk. You can ask the same question about Leonard’s mistress for the last six years. She’s Selena (the ever-magnificent Juliette Binoche), a classically-trained actress now starring in a popular TV cop show. As you might have guessed by now, Selena is Alain’s wife, and Selena cheating on him with his worst literary nightmare is an irony that amuses and appalls Assayas.
Are you with me? Assayas keeps the plot whirling, mostly through the introduction of Laure (Christa Théret). She’s Alain’s mistress (what — you thought he didn’t have one?). But Laure is also employed at Alain’s publishing house as head of — wait for it — digital transition. And so the demon dotcom becomes the catalyst of conversations in offices, cafes and between the sheets about whether the digital revolution will be the end or the salvation of the modern world.
In the form of an erotic romp, Assayas deals with what digital does to books you can hold in your hands and how the language of social media screws with art, culture and commerce. Or does it? Assayas, ever the provocateur, asks all the right questions. And he makes sharp jokes at the expense of Michael Haneke’s art film, The White Ribbon, and the blockbuster Fast and the Furious franchise. There’s something touching about watching flesh-and-blood characters trying to hold to the ground while the ground keeps shifting, even when Assayas occasionally lets them become mouthpieces for issues. No matter. The famous Assayas light touch keeps his film above the fray of didacticism. So dig in as an expert cast puts a scintillating spin on every verbal volley. <em>Non-Fiction</em> is a bonbon spiked with delicious wit and malice.