Non-Fiction (“Doubles vies”) (Olivier Assayas, 2019) 4 out of 4 stars.
Though I have not seen the entirety of French director Olivier Assayas’ œuvre, I have watched enough to recognize his recurring obsession with duality and doppelgängers (figurative and real). In the 2000 Les destinées sentimentales, Assays examines the fate of a protestant minister who pursues two separate love affairs; in the 2004 Clean, he follows actress Maggie Cheung as her character battles the addiction that effectively splits her into two very different people; in the magnificent 2014 Clouds of Sils Maria, he explores the relationship of an actress and her assistant to the intertwining fact and fiction of their true selves and dramatized doubles within the stage play inside the film; and in the 2016 Personal Shopper (which I have yet to see, actually), the woman played by Kristen Stewart seeks to communicate with her dead twin. It is therefore more than fitting that the original title of the director’s new work is “Doubles vies” (or “double lives”) – translated, for some reason, into the less evocative “Non-Fiction,” for English-language audiences – which perfectly encapsulates the theme of much of his cinematic output.
Assayas sets the narrative inside the venerable world of Parisian book publishing as it wrestles with the changing realities of why, how – and if – people (still) read. We open on a conversation between Alain (Guillaume Canet, In the Name of My Daughter) and Léonard (Vincent Macaigne, 2 Autumns, 3 Winters), a publisher and author of long acquaintance. Though he has heretofore always accepted Léonard’s manuscripts, this time Alain takes a pass, but only after a pleasant luncheon during which the two men wax eloquent on the state of reading in the digital age and whether tweets and emails count as literary writing. So far, so very intellectually French. Soon, given the sexual promiscuity of both men and at least one of their wives, we learn that the film’s Gallic tendencies go beyond mere conversation. It’s all done with a wink and a shrug, so even the betrayals have a certain charm.
Alain is married to Selena (Juliette Binoche, Let the Sunshine In), a TV actress worried about career stagnation and the affair she thinks her husband might be carrying on (but who’s to say that she isn’t unfaithful, as well?); together they have an adorable son. Léonard is married to Valérie (humorist Nora Hamzawi), personal assistant to a local politician, and though they seemingly have nothing in common, she ardently, at the end of a hard day, declares how much she loves him. Too bad that all he writes about are loosely fictionalized accounts of his many indiscretions. There are more characters within the drama, but these four make up the essential core of the narrative, their constant philosophizing on the nature of art and thought in modern times replicated over multiple scenes and locations. Given that life is art’s fodder for Léonard, there is an excellent chance that much of the goings-on could end up in his next book, yet another doubling.
If it seems heavy on the dialogue, it is, but all for the better. Assayas gives his actors choice mouthfuls, and they spew it out in beautiful natural cadences, nothing ever too polemical or artificial. One need not be a member of the literati to appreciate the conversation, especially since they all take different points of view on what is authentic and meaningful in the modern era. Brilliant, needy, and ultimately quite ordinary, they function as our own doubles on screen, articulating our own questions on the matters at hand. Both familiar and slightly glamorous (it’s a movie, after all), they make engaging companions over the course of a thoroughly entertaining 108 minutes. Thanks to them, and Assayas’ fine writing, Non-Fiction is filmic fiction as its quick-witted best.
[In French, with English subtitles.]