With popcorn buttered and perfect seats secured at the movie theater this weekend, you might want to buckle in before the previews end and Olivier Assayas’s latest, Non-Fiction, begins. Because once it does, you’re in for a non-stop, sharp-witted, word-heavy treat that will keep you engaged (and giggling) from one moment to the next. In less talented hands, a film that talks (and talks) its way through the death of the publishing industry, the complicated relationships we find ourselves in and just how absurd all of it is at the end of the day would be a heavy-handed bore. Thankfully, Assayas is quite talented indeed.
Starring Juliette Binoche (one of the filmmaker’s favorites), Guillaume Canet (Cezanne et Moi, Tell No One) and Vincent Macaigne (The Innocents) as a trio of idiosyncratic intellectuals, Non-Fiction (original title: Double Lives) might read on paper as an over-stuffed, over-confident screed against modernization, digitization and celebrity culture. It’s dialogue is so dense (by volume, not idea) that the script was likely at least twenty pages longer than an average film with a similar running time. But if you dare to keep up (and you can!), there are slights and quips to relish throughout, hot-takes and laugh-out-loud self-awareness to charm your pants off.
Canet is Alain, a book editor whom we meet when he meets one of his authors, Léonard Spiegel (Macaigne) for lunch; Léonard has a new manuscript, and he’s eager to get Alain’s take on it. Which makes it ever the more awkward when Alain has to break the news that he won’t be publishing the new book. Back in the office, Alain’s colleague Laure (Christa Théret) breaks bad news of her own, that she’s taken a new job that can pay more with a company better positioned for a digital age. By the evening, Léonard is home and sharing with his wife Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) his utter shock that his long-time publisher has turned him down; as a political consultant with bigger issues to contend with, she feigns sympathy as best she can. Meanwhile, Alain returns to his own home and mentions the lunch to his wife, Selena (Binoche), an actress with a long-running role on a procedural drama, who has to be reminded a time too many who Léonard Spiegel is, exactly. They laugh about it, put their young son to bed and all is briefly calm.
From here, the lives of these upper-middle-class creatives become so intertwined (it would be considered impolite to disclose just how before you see the film for yourself) that every scene reveals another layer that complicates the already absurd (yet oddly relatable) connections. We follow Alain and Selena to a dinner party where wine and witty conversation are served equally liberally. Elsewhere, Léonard mulls and fusses over just why his manuscript has been rejected, like a puppy denied a bone. By the time Léonard and Valérie join Alain and Selena at their beach house for the weekend, we know these neurotic, lovable messes so well that nearly nothing they say can surprise us…until it does, and it’s delightful.
Binoche shines throughout Non-Fiction as a woman who’d always imagined more for her life and career and is making the best of what she’s got; it must’ve been a treat for someone as celebrated as Binoche to poke a little fun at her own reputation. At least, it sure is a treat for us. Though not as well known stateside, Canet is every bit as accomplished as Binoche, and the two make their on-screen marriage, even in its tensest moments, appear effortless and lived-in. Macaigne, best known for his work in independent films (he deftly carries the little-seen 2 Autumns, 3 Winters), wastes no time meeting both Binoche and Canet at the high bar they set, playing the narcissistic but endearing artist to perfection.
It might not be politically correct to say it, but it’s impossible not to think of Woody Allen at his acerbic best throughout much of Assayas’s satire, the commentary as insightful as it is hilarious. Though much less profane, the script also owes a nod to Armando Iannucci and his brand of super-smart, super-fast and super-funny style. It all adds up to one of the most refreshingly entertaining films of the first half the year, and proves Assayas to be a filmmaker in his prime.