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The World Of Paris Publishing In 'Non-Fiction'

May 11, 2019
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The new fictional movie called "Non-Fiction" is set in the glamorous and endangered world of Paris publishing. The age of Twitter, audiobooks and streaming gives the characters a lot to think about and to talk about - well, it is a French movie. But as NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports, behind the literary debates, the film is about people who don't change when all around them does.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NON-FICTION")

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: In the first of many scenes of Parisians eating and talking in "Non-Fiction," an acclaimed publisher takes one of his writers out to lunch and then rejects his latest manuscript.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NON-FICTION")

VINCENT MACAIGNE: (As Leonard Spiegel, speaking French).

GUILLAUME CANET: (As Alain Danielson, speaking French).

BEENA KAMLANI: It is the most emotional. It's like a knife in the heart to hear that.

QURESHI: Beena Kamlani is a literary editor who has worked in New York publishing for more than 30 years. She says that opening conversation sets the tone.

KAMLANI: This is not a joke when you hear it. It's probably the most devastating bit of news you ever get.

QURESHI: The publisher in the movie has other concerns. He goes home to a dinner party and dives into a debate about the fate of books in the digital age.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NON-FICTION")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking French).

CANET: (As Alain Danielson, speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking French).

CANET: (As Alain Danielson, speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking French).

QURESHI: Filmmaker Olivier Assayas says his central character as a pragmatist.

OLIVIER ASSAYAS: He has devoted his life to the written word, to books, to literature. He has a profound connection to writing, to poetry. He's aware of the world around him. But he's also the head of a company. And he has to keep it alive. So he's also in touch with the economic reality.

QURESHI: If a movie about the digitization of publishing does not sound like box office gold, it's worth noting that Olivier Assayas is one of today's most popular European filmmakers. And "Non-Fiction" stars Oscar winner Juliette Binoche. American filmmaker Kent Jones has written extensively about Assayas and says his new movie isn't really about publishing at all.

KENT JONES: What everybody in the movie is talking about which is the state of publishing and what they seem to be obsessed about is finally not what the movie is about. The movie's about what people don't talk about, which is what's happening in their personal lives, what's happening between husbands and wives, husbands and lovers, wives and lovers et cetera.

QURESHI: There are affairs, arguments and reconciliations among the two central couples. Each of the film's characters is struggling with what it means to hold on to their values when their lives and jobs are in upheaval. Again, filmmaker Olivier Assayas.

ASSAYAS: The modern transformation of the world is questioning very deeply felt emotions, deeply embedded values and convictions. And we all have somehow to question ourselves in wherever we come from to just understand how to reinvent our own identity.

QURESHI: It's an especially potent idea for an old-world society like France, where public intellectuals are still revered and, of course, Paris, romanticized as the eternal city of writers out to boozy lunches in smoke-filled bistros.

ASSAYAS: It's interesting to make this film in the context of French culture because those questions question the very core of the society. But the changes have happened. They're done.

KAMLANI: This is where we are now. We're in the Internet age, firmly within it.

KAMLANI: Again, editor and writer Beena Kamlani.

KAMLANI: Algorithms are telling marketers what consumers want. Everything is being fed. It's a conveyor belt - even more so than it was 20 years ago. I think the film just really picked up on all of these things. It's very much the publishing zeitgeist of today.

QURESHI: And it's exactly the kind of cultural turmoil that Olivier Assayas likes to explore in his movies.

ASSAYAS: As much as I love the visual side of filmmaking, I do believe that movies should be about ideas. They should be part of the conversation. And they - and eventually, they could help the conversation move forward.

ASSAYAS: And Assayas's films are still released in cinemas, where just about everything small or independent is moving to digital platforms, says Kent Jones. He's also the director of the New York Film Festival.

JONES: For anyone who's making movies that are not about people in spandex with capes or that are not an animated movie with a number at the end of the title, there's a consciousness that things are a little bit precarious and that theatrical runs are becoming more and more precious. But, you know, he's one of those filmmakers who, at this point, audiences around the world actually respond to is a name. They know that when they see one of his films, they're going to see something special.

QURESHI: Just like the characters in "Non-Fiction" wrestling with the future of books, filmmaker Olivier Assayas says he still firmly believes in the communal power of cinema.

ASSAYAS: You know, we live in a society that has this kind of very unpleasant anti-intellectual streak. I believe in ideas. I do believe in ideas. I believe in being able to think about the way I make movies and why I make movies, how I make movies. I think that movies can be like theater, like novels that can be about the contemporary world, how we try to come to terms with it. And I think it's also one of the reasons people love movies.

QURESHI: Even maybe movies about ideas. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARVO TO ME'S "MND WRKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.