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French Comedy 'Non-Fiction' Infuses Every Conversation With Seductive Pull


This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "Non-Fiction" is an ensemble comedy about two bickering couples who work in and around the Parisian literary community. It was made by the French writer-director Olivier Assayas and stars Juliette Binoche. They previously worked together on the films "Summer Hours" and "Clouds Of Sils Maria." Film critic Justin Chang has a review of "Non-Fiction."

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: At one point in the delightfully head-spinning comedy "Non-Fiction," a character declares, for everything to stay the same, everything must change. The line is a direct quotation from "The Leopard," Luchino Visconti's magnificent 1963 film about an aristocratic family facing the end of an era as a revolution sweeps through 19th century Italy. "Non-Fiction" isn't quite so epic. It's a modern-day talk fest of a sort that owes less to Visconti than it does to the great French filmmaker Eric Rohmer. But its characters, all privileged members of Paris's cultural elite, are just as obsessed with the inevitability of change - specifically, the rise of digital technology and how it's reshaping their media landscape. That may not sound like the most scintillating subject for a feature film. But the writer-director, Olivier Assayas, has a knack for turning abstract ideas into stimulating cinema. He and his wonderful actors give every conversation an irresistibly seductive pull.

The two main characters are Alain, a literary editor played by Guillaume Canet, and Leonard, a novelist played by Vincent Macaigne. Leonard is morose and self-absorbed. And his books are basically thinly disguised accounts of his own past romantic exploits. Journalists describe them using the popular French term autofiction, although Leonard himself rejects the designation. Speaking of rejection, Alain has decided not to publish Leonard's latest novel. The market is tougher to crack than ever. And Alain is well aware of troubling developments in the publishing world - the rise of e-books, the decline of public libraries and the slow death of literary criticism as traditional publications lose ground to blogs and social media. One thing Alain doesn't seem aware of is the fact that his wife, Selena, is sleeping with Leonard.

Selena, played by Juliette Binoche, is an actress who's both bored and a little embarrassed by her starring role in a hugely popular cop show. Meanwhile, Alain drifts into his own affair with a tech-savvy young woman who's overseeing digital transformation at his publishing house. Professionally, the two are often at odds. And so their fling feels like a sly metaphor, an acknowledgment that the combative worlds of old and new media will eventually have to compromise.

The only major character who isn't cheating on someone is Leonard's wife, Valerie, who is played with steely, no-nonsense intelligence by the comedian-turned-actress Nora Hamzawi. Valerie works as an aide to a politician, a job that requires her to travel outside Paris and manage a very different set of crises. Her outsider's perspective feels like a bracing rebuke to the other characters and the complacency of their intellectual cocoon.

Olivier Assayas is a master at showing the contemporary world in a constant state of social and technological flux. It's a theme that he's pursued across a staggering range of genres, from the lovely family drama "Summer Hours" to the eerie supernatural thriller "Personal Shopper." With "Non-Fiction," he's basically riffing on the bourgeois sex comedy in order to get at pointed ideas about the uncertain future of art and civilization. He's drawing a connection between the impermanence of human relationships and the impermanence of human culture.

The movie is wonderfully promiscuous in its range of talking points. There are heated discussions of whether people are reading more or less than ever and whether the Internet is democratizing media or killing it. Is Twitter the root of all evil or is it merely the next step in the evolution of the discourse? As one character points out, a lot of tweets are just pithy witticisms of the sort that would have delighted the literary salons of 17th-century Paris.

"Non-Fiction" rises to a new level of meta shenanigans whenever the characters start referencing movies. One hilarious running gag involves the austere German language drama "The White Ribbon," whose Oscar-winning director, Michael Haneke, has worked with Juliette Binoche more than once. The fact that Binoche is playing an actress is itself a winking reminder that art often imitates life and vice versa.

The experience of watching "Non-Fiction" is both unsettling and weirdly soothing. The characters talk and talk and talk some more about all the existential threats to their livelihood. But there's something timeless and comforting about the environments in which they do it. Most of the conversations unspool in bustling cafes and cozy living rooms over long-lingering meals and endless cups of coffee.

You're reminded that the need for art and entertainment, for the pleasures of the moving image and the written word is synonymous with the human appetites for food, drink and sex. Perhaps the lesson of "The Leopard" can also be applied in reverse to this searching and warm-spirited movie. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my interview with Howard Stern.

HOWARD STERN: I don't know that I'm a really good interview, to be honest.

GROSS: Well, he was a great interviewee. And there was so much to talk about, we made it a two-parter. He has a new book collecting his interviews. So you can hear my interview with Howard Stern tomorrow on FRESH AIR and then more of it Wednesday on FRESH AIR. And also, Wednesday will feature my interview with Doris Day. She died today at the age of 97. We'll close with one of her recordings.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


DORIS DAY: (Singing) Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. And so I come to you, my love, my heart above my head. Though I see the danger there, if there's a chance for me, then I don't care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.