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‘Non-Fiction’ Review: French Sex Farce With Brains Skip to content

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'Non-Fiction': A French Sex Farce With Brains

Juliette Binoche, 55, scores as an adulterous actress facing middle age

Rating: R

Run time: 1 hour 48 minutes

Stars: Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet, Vincent Macaigne

Director: Olivier Assayas

For a chatty, frothy, funny French sex comedy, Non-Fiction has an important issue on its mind: Are grownups and their old-fashioned culture doomed to be trampled by armies of philistine young people marching to the beat of technology, relentless as the zombies on Game of Thrones? It's a big worry for book editor and publisher Alain (Guillaume Canet), whose highbrow company Verthuil Editions is in danger of getting gobbled up by a more profitably sharklike corporation. E-books aren't even selling anymore — but could audiobooks save literature? Alain sadly compares himself to the minister in Ingmar Bergman's film Winter Light (which inspired last year's must-see film First Reformed), preaching to an empty church in a culture that turns its back on faith.

Should Alain renounce unsalable belletristic novels and go for adult coloring books, which sell like crazy? Will he let his tattooed young Head of Digital Transition (Christa Théret), who argues that tweets are the new haiku, destroy print books forever? When she asks him how far he wants to go with her plan for creative destruction of his entire way of life, she's implicitly referring also to his marriage — because, naturellement, they're having an affair.


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Alain's wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche, 55), is even more fretful. She knows in her bones that Alain is having an affair, though not with whom, but she Gallic-shrugs it off. In their bohemian Parisian circle, the idea is, guilt over an affair may make your spouse treat you better. Besides, she's having a six-year affair with Alain's most proudly unsuccessful writer, Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), a rumpled Luddite who writes novels transparently based on his erotic adventures with Selena. They share a passion for traditional print books and disdain for electronic media and popular culture. In fancy French boites and spectacular waterfront villas, the terrific, smart bon mots fly fast and furious — this may be the quippiest highbrow French film since 1996's wonderful Ridicule. Leonard is a hilarious caricature of the change-averse hypocrite, a self-righteous writer of “feel-bad books” that Alain calls “worst-sellers.” Will Alain reject Leonard's latest worst-seller manuscript? Does he know it's about Selena's and Leonard's affair? Would he even care?

But the big worry Selena has isn't whether Alain gets it that the movie-theater sex scene in Leonard's novel involved her. (Though Leonard did change the movie they watched while in flagrante from Star Wars: The Force Awakens to Michael Haneke's arty The White Ribbon so he'll look cooler and more intellectual.) Selena's dilemma is that she's an actress of a certain age. In Hollywood, there are famously only three ages for an actress: babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. In France, Selena is relegated to a coplike role in a dumb but lucrative TV show, Collusion — she keeps telling people she doesn't play a cop, she plays a “crisis management expert.” But what's the difference? She's also about to play Racine's Phedre onstage, complaining, “Once you play Phedre, it's all over … but Sarah Bernhardt played it at 30!"

Director Assayas’ comic yet serious verbal soufflé about grownups with overeducated rich-people problems won't be to everyone's taste. The narcissistic characters’ love lives will strike some as shallow, and their critiques of digital culture versus tradition may seem like endlessly pointless philosophizing. (Hey, it's France!)But if you feel the need of a mind-cleansing intellectual divertissement between blockbuster movies, one that resembles a French update of a classic 1970s Woody Allen farce, this could be the movie for you.

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