Every few years, French director Olivier Assayas deviates from his pattern of filmmaking and makes a film that analyzes a specific aspect of modern society that he feels strongly about. In 2002, he made Demonlover which explores the abilities of large, international corporations to control the average person and, in 2008, he made Summer Hours which argues that the Internet has led to the devaluation of art across the world. So, his latest film, Non-Fiction (Double vies), seems like a logical continuation of his reflective work. However, Non-Fiction deviates from Assayas’ usual social commentary and argues in favor of some of the social changes, rather than analyze or critique them.
The film takes place in modern-day Paris and follows the lives of two couples, each with a direct connection to the literary publishing industry. Now, the central issue on display in Assayas’ film is the literary editors and novelists struggling to advertise their work in the era of the Internet and online publication. The secondary aspect is how an artist, specifically an author, in this case, struggles to separate their art from their reality. The original French title of the film, Double vies, translates to “double lives,” so, depending on which version of the film is viewed the “primary” and “secondary” issues can be used interchangeably. This small, yet important detail asserts that Assayas is practicing the compartmentalization required by artists to separate their lives from their art, but still struggling to not insert his curiosity of the state of the novel industry.
Assayas inserts his curiosity into the film in the debates of online vs. print publication. Assayas has been vocal about his distaste for popular culture and is very traditional on the definition of art. There are many instances, surprisingly, where he makes assertions that everyday writing such as texting, emailing, or Tweeting, can all be considered for publication and that the culture is better off with having everyone write as much as they do daily.
This concept of the “double life” also serves to describe how love plays into the characters lives. The main characters are either cheating on their spouse or tolerating being cheated on, yet none of the characters seem even to try and change their situations. Despite the numerous layers blurring the roles of the film with the creative process of the film production, Assayas is striving head first into many grandiose concepts. His layers build off of each other to the point where reality and the film’s narrative begin to become less prominent. His characters in the film struggle to come to an agreement on exactly how much inspiration one should take from their own lives, establishing Assayas’ belief that all works of fiction are inherently auto-fictitious.
The narrative is structured around many debates between characters discussing one or both of the issues at hand. This structure allows Assayas to use his swift dialogue style that has come to be synonymous with his name. His screenplay is smooth, yet not overly simple to the point where the issues are downplayed. He has a complicated relationship with his screenplay in the same way that one of the characters, Léonard, thrives off of using his affairs to generate plot and characters for his novels. As the characters confront the ambiguity of auto-fiction within the film, Assayas is struggling with the influence of his experiences and emotions during the creative process.
The debate created by Non-Fiction is certainly better than the actual film, as the narrative leaves much to be desired in comparison to Assayas’ previous work. The topics proposed for debate by the film are some of the better conversations sparked by his recent films. The plot of the film is pretty flimsy in the scenes between the primary debates, and this disrupts the pace of the film. However, the robust and free-flowing dialogue of Assayas’ screenplay allows for these weaker moments to be made up for by the much stronger debate scenes.
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