Book Smart: Non-Fiction Offers a Sharply Humorous Peek Into the Contemporary Publishing World

click to enlarge SUNDANCE SELECTS
Sundance Selects

French writer-director Olivier Assayas has been on an impressive run for the last decade with a handful of incredible productions, including Summer Hours, Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper. Assayas continues his streak with Non-Fiction, a dramedy about the unpredictable Parisian publishing industry — his first fully French film in nearly 20 years.

While Assayas’ name might not be as familiar to non-cinephiles in the U.S. as other foreign filmmakers like Pedro Almodóvar, Lars von Trier or Michael Haneke — the latter of whom receives a hilarious shout out in Non-Fiction — the Paris-born storyteller’s body of work is multilayered and eclectic. With Non-Fiction, Assayas gets the opportunity to add some more humor to his script, all while lightly mocking those who sit atop the contemporary worlds of literature and literary criticism. It’s a witty, dialogue-heavy and sarcastically funny entry into Assayas’ canon.

Non-Fiction is an ensemble piece with mostly unlikeable characters viewers will come to tolerate and maybe even find a little appealing. The film begins with writer Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne) at lunch with his publisher Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet, or the French Patrick Dempsey) to talk about his new “auto-fiction” manuscript, a term Léonard uses to describe his narrative style. As an author, Léonard writes his stories from his own life experiences but changes the names of the characters and some of the facts. In his most recent work, for example, when writing about receiving fellatio in a movie theater, Léonard changes the movie playing from Star Wars: The Force Awakens to Haneke’s acclaimed WWI drama The White Ribbon to make the tryst seem more sophisticated.

To make matters extra complicated, the woman in the story is based on Alain’s wife Selena (Juliette Binoche) who has been having an affair with Léonard for six years. We’re talking about French cinema here, so it’s no surprise that Alain, too, is sleeping around with his pretty employee Laure (Christa Théret), hired to help take their company into the digital age. When Alain decides not to publish Léonard’s new book, everyone wonders if it’s because he read between the lines and knows about Selena’s extracurricular activities.

As much two-timing as takes place in Non-Fiction, what’s most enjoyable about Assayas’ plotless screenplay are the issues it raises about the value of books and the arts in general. “More people read my blog than my books,” an author says nonchalantly during a conversation concerning the ever-changing tendencies of readers and the literary trends that will likely kill publishing houses forever. Maybe it’s true — as one of the characters presumes — that someday the written word will be generated via algorithms, but until then, moviegoers should know that Non-Fiction is an intelligent and clever delight.

Non-Fiction opens exclusively at the Santikos Bijou Cinema Bistro June 7.

3.5 out of 5 stars