Aug 15, 2019
Welcome back for another Certified Fresh film review, this one recently made available on streaming services, and starring one of my favorite French actresses. Can’t wait to tell you all about it, but for a few other recent French films we’ve covered, check out Andrew Campbell’s review for “Girls With Balls” (Episode #558), my review of “Sorry Angel” (Episode #557), and Ryan L. Terry’s review for “Knife + Heart” (Episode #542). It’s a nice spread of films showing the diversity of what’s currently available from the French film scene.
Prior to the review, however, we’ll have a promo for our friends at the Top 5 For Fighting podcast! Check out their recent episode about guilty pleasure films with special guest @KolbyToldMe, whose also one of our biggest supporters here on One Movie Punch. You won’t regret tuning in. Find Top 5 for Fighting on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @Top5forFighting.
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Here we go!
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Today’s movie is “Non-Fiction”, the French dramedy written and directed by Olivier Assayas. The film follows the lives of upper-class Parisians in the literature and film worlds, in the fallout of a work of autobiographical fiction by author Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne) which details the double lives lead by many of his friends and lovers, including an affair during his previous marriage. After a few festival appearances, the film was finally released in theaters earlier this year.
I’m struck by how much a title can influence one’s perception of a film. One example I like to give is “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, which by its very title suggests the focus will be on the matchup between the two superheroes, and not on the much larger story taking place within that film. It places a lot of emphasis on the fight, and when that turned out to be a minor dud, it painted the rest of the film poorly. I believe if the film had been called “Dawn of Justice”, that the title change alone would have helped its perception in many ways. Just not the Martha part. Anything but the Martha part.
The French title for today’s film is “Doubles Vies”, directly translated as “Double Lives”, and I think that might be a more apt title for the film. The English title of “Non-Fiction” places the emphasis on the idea of what might be considered non-fiction, not just in the case of Spiegel’s chosen genre of autobiographical fiction, but also as a larger look at the webs of deception we weave in everyday life, focused mostly on Léonard’s life. “Double Lives” places the emphasis on all the characters, both the leads and the supporting cast, and the ways they deal with the double lives we see in others and maybe even within our own lives. One of the strengths of this film is that both titles and their accompanying themes nicely complement each other and fall back onto themselves to form a well-connected film. And maybe that’s why it translated the way it did.
“Non-Fiction” is definitely not a film for smashing Parisian stereotypes, though. Cigarette smoking. Philosophical conversations. Rampant infidelity. The occasional soul-crushing existentialist brooding fit. The largely white and affluent cast. I think that’s actually another clever affectation for the film, presenting a cast of characters that exemplify the perception of upper-class Parisian life while showing us their secrets and baser concerns. Part style. Part criticism. The characters are very well developed, much like the characters within 2017’s haunting “Personal Shopper”, substituting the intensity of that thriller for the softer edges of this dramedy. Every character is either working to conceal a double life, or dealing with the fallout of the double lives of others.
Our initial impressions are overturned as we find out more about each character, especially why Léonard’s publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet) doesn’t want to publish Léonard’s book, despite the insistence of Alain’s actress wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche). Or Alain’s struggles with the changing landscape of the publishing industry, both the threat to the bottom line and the lure of its larger promises. Or Selena’s struggles with her secrets and her flagging desire to continue a popular television series, with the actor here serving as its own kind of double life. Even Léonard’s current wife, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), who is probably the most honest character in the bunch, is often forced to react to either her husband’s circumstances or her political bosses. It is a fascinating hall of mirrors.
The film is also peppered with lengthy philosophical discussions
and reflections on the publishing and video industries, in
particular how digitization and the Internet are radically changing
the way we approach writing and video production. As someone who
loves to read, has fancied himself a writer, and works adjacent to
the video industry, all of these topics fascinated me a great deal.
I love films that don’t mind having extended discussions about big
ideas, whether that’s French cinema like “Non-Fiction” or the many
brilliant conversations within the Tarantino repertoire.
The downside is that if you don’t engage with those topics, the extended discussions can take a lot of wind out of the sails of the larger stories about the characters. It’s not a film you put on to relax and have a few laughs. It’s definitely a deep think piece, and a very good one at that, but only if that’s your thing. Otherwise, you might find yourself feeling like you’re a wallflower at one of those parties, not that engaged and wondering when you can leave. The best audience can appreciate both strengths of this film, but may lose viewers who aren’t interested in either one.
“Non-Fiction” is a well-developed, intellectual look at the double lives we either live or observe around us, particularly in a connected and digitizing world. A wonderful cast brings life to great characters to tell a thematic story about who we are and who we present to the world. French film fans, and fans of Assayas or Binoche, should definitely check out this film, but be ready for some heady conversations, both during the film, and afterwards with others who have seen it.
Rotten Tomatoes: 89% (CERTIFIED FRESH)
One Movie Punch: 9.2/10
“Non-Fiction” (2018) is rated R and is currently playing on Hulu.