(2019) *** R
108 min. IFC Films. Director: Olivier Assayas. Cast: Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet.

/content/films/5162/1.jpgWhat is the world coming to? That classic existential question tends to encroach right along with middle-age and extend into old age, as younger generations skillfully acclimate to the new status quo. 64-year-old French writer-director Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper) has seen industries and cultures—as well as intimate relationships—change on his watch, and he makes them the stuff of his drily amusing new comedy Non-Fiction.

In fact, Assayas called his film "Doubles vies" (“Double Lives”)—it’s been renamed for American distribution. Both titles imply how the public and the private attempt to remain separate but must, of course, intersect. In large part, Non-Fiction plays out like an ’80s or ‘90s Woody Allen comedy-drama, a roundelay of strained marriages and illicit affairs, but the titles also refer to how artists mirror the truth to tell fictional stories, and how we understand and relate to our world in a post-truth era. Non-Fiction lives its own double life: half light farce, half Intelligence Squared-style debate on the state of public discourse.

Few filmmakers could pull off such a proposition (the late Abbas Kiarostami comes to mind), but Assayas proves up to the task. It doesn’t hurt that he has in one of the leading roles the great Juliette Binoche (Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, Kiarostami’s Certified Copy). In a drolly meta turn, Binoche plays Selena, a somewhat less successful version of herself who feels stifled in her gig on a cop show named “Collusion.” Her husband Alain (Guillaume Canet) runs a publishing company built on shifting sands: with text going digital, he’s having to constantly reevaluate the relative prominence of print and screen media.

At the film’s outset, Alain rejects the latest book by novelist Léonard for reasons that may or may not be objective. Might Alain suspect the truth of his wife’s affair with the shambolic Léonard? He might. But then Alain, too, is carrying on an affair, with his publishing company’s “head of digital transition” Laure (Christa Théret), who would seem to represent the inevitable obsolescence of Alain’s expertise. Did I mention that the Léonard also has a wife, the idealistic but self-centered political consultant Valérie (Nora Hamzawi)? Léonard compulsively complicates everything by only thinly veiling his own life—and his own affairs—in his novels.

As the characters navigate their fraught relationships, they never stop bantering about the state of the world. Assayas has the wit to both mock his characters’ privileged viewpoints (which he knows he shares) and earnestly make their cases, depicting what pretentiousness looks like in an increasingly dumbed-down culture. Characters overreach in their literary references (“Adorno on a tablet or paper doesn’t change what we get from him,” says one. “You’ve never read Adorno,” retorts another); Selena complains about her job, but defensively notes her TV-fueled stardom and that she plays not a cop, but a “crisis management expert.”

While it’s not hard to guess where Assayas’ sympathies lie (for one thing, he pointedly resists cinema’s digital status quo by shooting his film on Super 16 mm film), he has stated as the film’s theme “how we adapt or don't adapt to the way the world's changing.” Non-Fiction slyly addresses our human-natural instinct to hunker down in our comfort zones even as we fear the world passing us by should we remain in one place. With good humor, Assayas tells a fictional/non-fictional tale about how we think and how we consume media, how we tell stories to each other and ourselves, and what we need out of our personal connections.

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