If literature becomes extinct, will we lose literary comedies, too? That’s the meta-question posted by “Non-Fiction,” Oliver Assayas’ sparkling literary comedy of manners set in the world of publishing.
Assayas’ films are tough to pin down, from the delightfully confounding “Personal Shopper” to the ripped-from-the-headlines thriller “Carlos.” “Non-Fiction,” open since last Friday in its Madison premiere at Market Square, is more in line with his gentle 2008 drama “Summer Hours.” That film looked at a small event — a group of siblings weighing whether to sell the family’s vacation home — as a window into larger questions about familial bonds and the passage of time.
In “Non-Fiction,” Assayas uses discussions about radical changes in the way people read to spark a broader conversation about how culture is changing and how people struggle to adapt. In French comedies like this, the way they respond to such existential questions is often by sleeping with other people’s spouses.
Alain (Guillaume Canet) is the dashing head of a venerable French publishing house. He wears a rueful smile as he talks about the problems facing his business. People would rather read tweets than novels. Authors make more of an impact writing blog posts than short stories. Digital e-books are erasing print, even as audiobooks eclipse e-books.
“We can peacefully leave books behind,” Alain jokes sadly.
The publishing house hires a new digital manager, Laure (Christa Théret), who is utterly pragmatic when it comes to radically transforming how people read. Alain seems drawn to Laure’s refreshing unsentimentality, and not just in a philosophical way, as she talks about tearing down the old models and starting fresh.
Laure even takes a direct shot at critics, predicting they’ll go extinct as social media and data connect authors and readers. “No need for a middleman’s subjectivity. Now we have algorithms.” Ouch.
Alain’s best friend is a dyspeptic author, Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), who writes “feel-bad” novels based on his own life. His subject matter includes the affair he’s been having with Alain’s wife Serena (Juliette Binoche), an actor who’s bored with her role on a “bingeworthy” TV cop show.
But the real betrayal between the friends isn’t the affair. It’s that Alain declines to publish Leonard’s new book.
What follows is a series of funny, thoughtful conversations — in restaurants, in bars and, of course, in bed — as the characters talk through their feelings on books, and use those conversations to tap into their deeper insecurities.
There’s something thrilling about watching a movie that engages so fully with the present moment we’re living through, but Assayas handles the commentary with a light, playful touch. At one point, Leonard suggests getting Juliette Binoche to read his audiobook — to Binoche herself, playing Serena. She blows him off.
Readers will connect with the conversations in “Non-Fiction,” but the underlying universal themes resonate as well.
“We must choose the change, not suffer it,” Leonard says of living in a rapidly shifting world. Fine. But we still get to keep French movies, don’t we?