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Genre distinction

'Non-Fiction' explores new media and age-old relationship issues

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What 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.

The 64-year-old French writer-director Olivier Assayas has seen industries and cultures -- as well as intimate relationships -- change on his watch, and he makes them the stuff of his amusing new comedy "Non-Fiction."

His film, originally titled 'Doubles vies' ("Double Lives") before being renamed for American distribution, implies 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 the great Juliette Binoche (Assayas' "Clouds of Sils Maria," Kiarostami's "Certified Copy") in one of the leading roles. 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 re-evaluate the relative prominence of print and screen media.

At the film's outset, Alain rejects the latest book by novelist Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) for reasons that may or may not be objective. Might Alain suspect the truth of his wife's affair with the shambolic Leonard? He might. But then Alain, too, is carrying on an affair, with his publishing company's "head of digital transition" Laure (Christa Theret), who would seem to represent the inevitable obsolescence of Alain's expertise. Did I mention that the Leonard also has a wife, the idealistic but self-centered political consultant Valerie (Nora Hamzawi)? Leonard 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).

"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.

— Peter Canavese

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The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 10, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

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