It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the 75th Venice International Film Festival (29 August – 8 September), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Milo Garner reviews Olivier Assayas’ comedy on the Parisian publishing world.
It seems suiting that a film entitled Doubles Vies (English: Non-Fiction) would be one of two parts. It lives its own double life, the first as a supposedly intellectual consideration of publishing in the digital age, the second as the quintessence of French cinema – a middle class social group all engaged in endlessly revolving affairs with one another, each unsure on what exactly constitutes love, and each sure that an extramarital fling certainly does not condemn whatever that thing is. It can even strengthen it, they hope. The double life of the film is, like most moonlighters, an uneven affair. The first part embraces the worst elements of Assayas’ filmography, but there is plenty to be salvaged in the second.
But to begin as the film begins – an extensive monologue on the state of literature in modern-day France. Things aren’t looking good. The supposedly oncoming digitization of books is faltering at the gate. Book sales are up, but from an all-time low – eBooks are falling from an all-time high at serious rates. Does this mean we are a society who does not read? Not exactly. People read, and increasingly write, every day. The internet is the domain of the literate, in some sense, and every blog, text, or tweet represents some form of written expression or communication. Like the witticisms from the ancien régime, one character suggests – and equally valid as literature. All these things are true: literature is an art in decline and the potential consequences for society are wide ranging. But true as they are, Doubles Vies never deigns to delve much further. It frames the above discussion constantly (and often repetitively) as coffee-table debates between middle class peers, but in such a way as to gradually condescend what must be a very particular audience. Every fact is explicated, stats are quoted, ideas are clearly rounded. It is as though Assayas prefers this film as a soapbox to present his various musings and deliver them in much the same way he probably acquired them: as lengthy screeds amongst friends, far more amusing for the participant than the onlooker.
Perhaps if this information was in some way novel it could at least create a sense of didactic interest, but almost every supposed revelation is by now very old news. In Personal Shopper Assayas used technology innovatively whereas Doubles Vies is more like listening to your dad explain the obvious. Assayas at one point creates an analogy to publishing via Bergman, particularly Winter Light. This choice is worth mentioning as in Winter Light Bergman suggests several things about the state of religion in then-modern Sweden without ever having to describe them. A priest preaching to an empty church is a searing image; a gaggle of Frenchmen musing on global trends – often without irony – is less so.
Irony is not something that Assayas lacks, however. It is telling that the various discussions considering the value of the digital over the physical are shot with a very grainy 16mm. The indexical nature of film, now rare against the overwhelming tide of digital, suggests a physicality and warmth – that same descriptor is often applied to vinyl for a similar reason. The remnants of an analogue world, one less efficient but far more tangible, linger. Where digital filmmaking is an interpretation of information – one that can be altered in process – film strips are reacting chemically, directly. This, I would imagine, is Assayas’ meta-argument in favour of the book over the eBook. And to deliver it as a visible fuzz is a great deal more elegant than any amount of spurious intellectualism between friends.
Then there is the framework for this discussion, the network of people that simply cannot keep their hands to themselves. The main dynamic pits Alain, a together and charming publisher, against Léonard, a pathetic slob who apparently has some talent for prose and, shockingly, womanizing. Léonard is more than his serial affairs, however, as he also uses them (exclusively, it would seem) as the subjects of his writing, or “auto-fiction”. He applies the thinnest of veneers, changing a few names here and locations there. A blowjob at The Force Awakens becomes oral at The White Ribbon, a joke that had the Venice crowd in raptures. And fair enough. The tone that permits such silliness is also the reason the film can function so well against its milieu of wordy back and forths. The actual double life is that the film wears the mask of intellectual cinema when it is truly a comedy, and sometimes a very funny comedy at that. The screwball-esque doings of Léonard are gratifying, especially as we witness his supposedly “chaotic” worldview squirrel away when he is presented with that adjective in a more practical capacity. As the film continues this element becomes more prominent (mainly due to a severe reduction in seminars on publishing in the second half), and for the better.
Even the intellectual discussion becomes more interesting when it steers toward the distinction between truth and fiction in writing, and whether an experience might in some way belong to someone, even when veiled. Léonard’s writing does not exist in a void of his creation, but rather the world on which it is based, meaning the fiction-non-fiction he writes has real-world impact despite its supposed fabrication. His insistence that it is fiction, if only in part, does not sever this link to reality as he might like. This is far more interesting territory, or rather territory discussed in a far more interesting way, involving fewer stats and figures than radio discussions and writer Q&As. Here is a slightly more organic explication of ideas.
Ultimately Doubles Vies is a minor work, though it seems this was always the intention. It may falter in its opening half, but then has enough charm and humour to remain afloat and sailing. The performances are all excellent, particularly the ever-dependable Binoche and the listless Macaigne, who have a rare chemistry, or anti-chemistry as it might be described. The camera calls attention to its form and nature even if individual shots are less captivating. The script is just about droll enough to counteract the more grating of its tendencies. These elements might not meld into a great film of any kind, but a good one? That they manage.
Doubles Vies (Non-Fiction) will have its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on October 13th. Here’s a clip from the film: