“Everything must change for things to remain the same,” a character recites in Olivier Assayas’s breezy take on digital culture’s intrusion into the rarified world of French literary intellectuals. It’s a line from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard (and Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation), and its use here has a double irony. It’s sort of a joke comparing the crisis that e-publishing and Twitter present to the film’s leisured class of literati to the last days of Italy’s ancient regime, but it’s funny because it’s also sort of true.
The plot centers on two couples and the secrets they keep. Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) is a writer of thinly veiled autobiographical novels who is irked at his friend Alain (Guillaume Canet), a respectable literary publisher, for refusing to pick up his latest work. He’s also sleeping with Alain’s wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche), a successful but unfulfilled TV actor, and hiding it from his wife, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), an aide to a politician threatened with looming scandal. Alain, meanwhile, is having an affair with his ambitious young e-publishing assistant, Laure (Christa Théret), who is herself hiding it from her girlfriend (Olivia Ross).
The drama of these liaisons is sublimated into extended debates about whether the rise of digital media is causing cultural decline. In one scene, Alain defends digital publishing against Leonard’s Luddism; in the next, he condescends to Laure’s digital utopianism. The shifting positions that these characters take are rooted in their own narcissistic anxieties.
In Non-Fiction, Assayas’s longstanding fascination with the ways in which the economics and technologies of globalization have made our lives increasingly abstract is mapped onto a traditional French sex comedy of manners. The results are mixed. The biggest problem is the dialogue, which feels cribbed from decade-old think pieces. At about the third or fourth expository sequence—about blogging, about the popularity of e-readers, about how search optimization works—I began to wonder: Who is this movie was for? Other than Paris’s fading cultural elite, it’s hard to imagine anybody so out of touch that merely hearing reference to these topics is satisfaction enough.
In short, viewers hoping for moments of visual sublimity equal to those in Clouds of Sils Maria or Personal Shopper will be disappointed. That the film is nevertheless watchable is the result of fine acting by its leads, who intermittently make the most out of the script’s superficiality.
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