‘Non-Fiction’ is a movie of (really French) ideas
“Non-Fiction” couldn’t be more French if it were served au jus. The characters are impeccably dressed and intellectual, the conversations long and cultured, the adultery frequent yet forgiven with a Gallic shrug. If Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Personal Shopper”) weren’t behind the camera and if the subject weren’t the future of reading — and thinking, and life — in a 280-character digital world, the movie might be a parody of itself. Instead, it’s a fond comedy of manners and pretentions, a film for literate audiences that gently bites the hands that buy the tickets.
The film concentrates on four Parisians. Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) is a scruffy and noisily anti-establishment author whose novels are thinly veiled recountings of his life and affairs. Alain (Guillaume Canet) is Léonard’s publisher, a cool customer on the surface who’s roiled by doubts about where his industry is headed. Selena (Juliette Binoche) is Alain’s actress wife, star of a hit cop show, with whom Léonard has been having an affair for several years. Valérie (Nora Hamzawi delightfully sane) is Léonard’s longtime girlfriend, assistant to a progressive politician and the most idealistic of the bunch. Which makes her the most naive and, in some ways, the wisest.
There are subsidiary characters, mostly encountered in boardrooms, bedrooms, and at dinner parties where the talk is archly cynical and the guests vie to seem the most in-the-know. Perhaps most terrifying of all is Laure (Christa Théret), a newly installed “head of digital transition” at Alain’s publishing company who is very much in the mold of Faye Dunaway’s character in “Network” — the soulless, sexually bold harbinger of a terrifying new era. Of course Alain has a fling with her while debating between the sheets whether anyone under 25 wants to read anything longer than a tweet.
If you’re not attuned to a movie of ideas — even playfully spoofed haut-bourgeois ideas — you’ll probably want to give this subtitled talkathon a pass. But anyone whose world even partially revolves around books — to read, to write, to publish — may find “Non-Fiction” a feast, especially in its insistence that art is made up of the raw stuff of our lives in ways both necessary and exploitive.
Léonard, for one, remulches his life into novels so relentlessly that Selene just knows she’s a character in his latest book and is scared her husband will find out — especially that scene involving a sexual act in the balcony of a movie theater showing a Michael Haneke film. (It was a “Star Wars” movie in real life, but that’s too down-market for Léonard.)
The dialogue is as chewy as a baguette and as pungent as a ripe cheese, with positions taken (“Writing will dematerialize, it’s inevitable”) and argued with (“Adorno on a tablet or paper doesn’t change what we get from him.” “You’ve never read Adorno.”). “All fiction is autobiographical,” someone says, and all life gets turned into whatever fiction gets us through the day. Selena insists to anyone who’ll listen that her TV role isn’t a cop but a “crisis management expert.” She plays a cop.
The cast finesses Assayas’s thickets of talk and double-talk with ease, but it’s Binoche who’s the heart of “Non-Fiction.” (She even gets a neat meta-moment toward the end.) As in her recent films for Assayas and directors like Claire Denis, the actress creates a beautifully flawed human, whose neuroses and little moments of courage seem familiar because they’re often our own. Selene is the reality principle of a movie that chips away at the opposing mirrors of art and life and laughs at the silly, hopeful people lost in the reflections, forever asking themselves the screenplay’s key question: “Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?” To ask is to live, to answer is to create.
Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. Starring Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet, Vincent Macaigne, Nora Hamzawi. At Kendall Square. 108 minutes. R (some language and sexuality/nudity). In French, with subtitles.