“Non-Fiction” is a chatty French comedy peopled with effortlessly thin, effortlessly stylish, witty, sophisticated and oh-so-dry members of the monied, educated and literary classes.
They lunch and debate, cocktail party, attend readings and appear on chat shows and discuss everything from Twitter (“People sharing witticisms. It’s very French, very ancien regime.”) to politics and the brave new world in which Amazon might be the curators of all future literary prizes and “Google has taken our entire literary memory hostage” selling user data to advertisers, a form of “appropriating the circulation of knowledge.”
One thing they prefer to leave “unspoken” is the most French ancien regime of all. They’re pretty much all having affairs in that stereotypical French way — in French movies, at least. There’s lots and lots of “run its course” and “bored” and “ennui.”
Funny thing about this Olivier Assayas (“Something in the Air,” “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Summer Hours”) film. It doesn’t actually get funny until the third act, and its generally parched feel in no way matches the jaunty Jonathan Richman tune tucked into the closing credits.
We meet the jaded Alain (Guillaume Canet) as he takes writer-friend Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) out to lunch. They banter over audio books winning the war with E-books, the World Wide Web and the state of their business.
Alain tactfully jokes that “we didn’t kill many trees” with a previous novel. He’s so tactful that Leonard doesn’t get that his new book isn’t being picked up.
Leonard’s specialty is autofiction, the newish term for writers who mine their own lives for their fiction, changing the names and situations just enough to avoid legal problems, but bruising those in the know who know that this form of roman a clef is really talking about them.
Alain’s TV actress wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche) is more of a fan of the manuscript, more tolerant of this “narcissist with a human being” buried deep inside. Alain’s mind is made up, and no gentle persuasion from the star of TV’s “Collusion” moves him.
His new “digital transition” director Laure (Christa Théret) is a personal and professional distraction, somebody else to bat ideas about the shifting sands of publishing with. But she’s young and beautiful. And when he tries to explain his position on the changing world by referencing the pastor preaching to an empty church in Bergman’s “Winter Light,” she shows it.
She’s never seen a Bergman film.
Valerie (Nora Hamzawi ) is Leonard’s wife, so wrapped up in her work for an idealistic socialist politician that she doesn’t take his hint to “Stand by me” with his editor’s rejection seriously. She has a tablet and three phones to load up before she’s out the door.
Leonard has challenging reader Q & As to talk about his sometimes scandalous work and brittle broadcast interviews where it’s plain that he didn’t do enough homework before changing the title of the film a character meant to be him had sex with a well-known woman in at the cinema. Dinner parties carry on these adult debates and conversations, essentially about the dire present and fraught future of art as commerce.
There’s a lot of frankly repetitious muttering that “Nobody reads books any more” and how online is “democratizing reading” and by extension, publishing, and hissing at the villains of every form of publishing. “The real pirates are the internet providers.”
“We can peacefully leave books behind,” this or that character says, but no one really wants to believe it. Even “digital transition” empress Laure.
There’s a lot going on, and every character is juggling something and they all harbor a little fear — or should harbor it — that the twitchy, cynical Leonard will use everything he sees, experiences of suspects in his next novel.
It reads livelier than it plays, I must say.
But the sophistication of it all, the provocative disagreements of the many long conversations, pulled me in.
Of the cast, Canet, who wrote, directed and starred in the cerebral mystery-thriller “Tell No One,” is almost too poker-faced to embrace.
Not so Binoche, who is the life of the picture, especially in the many scenes leading up to the lighter moments that wrap everything up. She makes Selena flinty and vulnerable, sneaky and subversive, a cynic quick to label others “cynics.”
The Frenchness, the level (and amount of) conversation and droll situations give “Non-Fiction” the feel of a fall film, that season when movies demand more attention because they’re ostensibly more serious. This one isn’t that serious, and its demands aren’t necessarily warranted.
But it’s still nice to be challenged by a picture whose subtext is all about the rise of “content” displacing “art” in literature, film, on TV and on our smart phones.
MPAA Rating: R for some language and sexuality/nudity
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet, Vincent Macaigne, Nora Hamzawi , Lionel Dray, Sigrid Bouaziz
Credits: Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. An IFC/Sundance Selects release.
Running time: 1:47