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Most of us have been online for decades, but the contemporary cinema has largely avoided examining the massive lifestyle changes enabled and inspired by the internet. A lot of films these days seem to take place in a pre-smartphone era and bungle even the simplest online interactions. While I can understand how watching people look at screens is inherently uncinematic, I can also probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen someone convincingly send an email in a Hollywood movie.
Notable exceptions are the films of Olivier Assayas. The big-brained former Cahiers du Cinéma critic has been wrestling with notions of identity displacement caused by technological advances ever since his 2002 “Demonlover,” and in the recent “Personal Shopper” crafted one of this decade’s most suspenseful setpieces out of Kristen Stewart texting with a ghost. Assayas has got an awful lot of ideas about how living in a digital realm has altered our attitudes toward culture, and he crams just about all of them into his new “Non-Fiction,” albeit in the guise of a sly sex comedy. He’s couched at least three movies’ worth of complex concepts inside an old-fashioned, fleet-footed bedroom farce. It’s like a TED Talk in which everybody’s screwing and I loved it.
The dashing Guillaume Canet stars as Alain, head of a venerable, hundred-year-old Parisian publishing house attempting to adjust to the new realities of an internet-driven marketplace. How do you sell books when everyone’s reading their phones all day? “Non-Fiction” begins with a beautifully cringe-inducing lunch during which Alain attempts to reject the latest manuscript by his magnificently disheveled longtime author and friend Léonard (Vincent Macaigne in a star-making turn.) The scene is a marvel of miscommunication and sets the stage for a story driven by smart conversations among people impressively long on intellect and woefully short on self-awareness.
Léonard’s a real piece of work, spinning blatantly autobiographical novels out of his extramarital affairs and then sheepishly shrugging off the ensuing scandals as folks reading too much into fiction. (Sometimes he even throws in deliberately misleading details so people will misidentify his mistresses.) With his pajama pants and Kurt Cobain T-shirt, the schlumpy Macaigne cuts the figure of an unlikely lothario, and as a proud Luddite, he remains blessedly unaware of how much everybody hates him on Twitter.
Juliette Binoche co-stars as Alain’s wife Selena, a stage actress who hit it big on a television police procedural and is trying to decide whether or not to come back for a fourth season on a job she despises. Selena is aghast at the idea of art as comfort food to be binge-watched, although to be fair, she doesn’t seem to mind the paycheck. (Ever the critic, Assayas can’t resist staging a swipe at prestige TV’s penchant for over-directed long takes.) Binoche has a loose and sexy comic energy here, contributing to a running gag about “The Force Awakens” that makes me smile every time I think about it.
With all its intense, long-winded conversations about art and culture in cafes over wine and cheese while everybody’s smoking cigarettes and secretly sleeping with each other, “Non-Fiction” sometimes feels like the Frenchiest French film ever made. This strikes me as a deliberate design on Assayas’ part, working in a classical arthouse mode that’s an increasingly endangered species as a kind of formal match for the fading fortunes of Alain’s publishing company.
He’s recently hired a new director of digital marketing who’s pushing for publishing books of tweets and turning everything into an iPhone app. Because this is that kind of movie, she’s also a gorgeous blonde, 20-something bisexual who seduces the boss while waxing rhapsodic about how algorithms have rendered critics irrelevant. But Assayas wisely resists any urge to make her the villain of the piece, instead accepting that progress will inevitably leave everyone in the dust and even lets them riff on that famous quote from Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” about how everything must change for things to remain the same.
As in his great 2008 “Summer Hours,” Assayas is able to ache for what is lost when traditions change over time without being a cranky old man about it. The film’s funniest character just might be Léonard’s wife Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) who works for a progressive politician and is actually out there in the streets trying to make the world a better place while the rest of these characters ponder intangibles over expensive cocktails. She’s got a wonderfully blunt way of cutting through their airy chatter, providing much-needed perspective checks to our bourgeoisie bed-hoppers.
What a treat it is to see a movie so engaged with the times in which we live. In promoting the film, Assayas has mentioned Woody Allen as a big influence, and when it’s really humming “Non-Fiction” feels like something the “Hannah and Her Sisters”-era Allen might’ve made had he not decided to pretend it’s still 1958 for the rest of his life.
Make no mistake, this is one verbose movie — it’s not for nothing that some critic pals and I used to refer to the director as “Olivier Essayist” — but the farcical structure keeps the discussions from degenerating into one of those finger-wagging lectures about “The Way We Live Now.” Instead, it’s pure pleasure listening to these people who are so smart about their work, and so dumb about love.
“Non-Fiction” opens Friday, May 17 at the Kendall Square Cinema.
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