Olivier Assayas’ “Non-Fiction,” starring Juliette Binoche, is about writers and publishers and bourgeois intellectuals and affairs, extramarital and otherwise. But most of all it’s about talking. It’s practically a nonstop jabberathon. What rescues the film from tedium is that much of the talk is enticing.
It should come as no surprise that “Non-Fiction” is built around banter, especially of the high-toned variety. This is, after all, a French film – a very French film – which means its characters are prone to extended discourse about the zeitgeist between sips of vin rouge. Éric Rohmer, with movies like “My Night at Maud’s” and “Claire’s Knee,” created the template for this sort of thing. By contrast, Assayas’ previous movies, including “Irma Vep” and “Clouds of Sils Maria,” have generally been less talky and more stylistically flamboyant. Here he is happy to rein in his camera and tap his inner Rohmer.
Almost from the beginning we are plunged into the world of words. Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), a novelist notorious for his semi-autobiographical romans à clef, is having lunch with Alain (Guillaume Canet), his long-standing publisher. Alain has read Léonard’s latest manuscript, and although their conversation is pleasant enough, it soon becomes clear to us, if not to Léonard, that Alain will not publish the book. The men’s bonhomie can’t defrost the chill in the air.
It is during a follow-up party scene with Alain and his TV actress wife, Selena (Binoche, in the film’s best performance), that the film shifts into full Rohmer mode. Everybody seems to have an opinion about the state of literature in the digital era. Alain is wary about where his business is heading. Are e-books really the wave of the future? A writer guest opines, not altogether unhappily, that more people read his blog than his books. Tweets are described as modern-day haiku. Selena, defiantly old school, declares she will never read a book on a tablet.
This sort of discussion, extending throughout the movie, may seem too “inside” for even the film’s intended art house audience. But what keeps the talk from being merely a pileup of shopworn pensées is that Assayas, who also wrote the screenplay, is less interested in what these people are saying than in why they are saying it. Beneath all their righteous intellectualizing sits a big blob of personal insecurities.
Assayas sees the humor in this double-decker disparity. Thankfully, he is not a moralizer, and he doesn’t condescend to anybody, not even Laure (Christa Théret), who Alain halfheartedly brings into the business to spearhead its digital transition, and with whom he is having an affair. Laure is a bit reminiscent of Faye Dunaway’s Diana in “Network,” a technocratic diva who cares little for the old ways of doing things. But even here, amid all her talk about the glory of algorithms and the impending obsolescence of libraries, we learn that her father had been a novelist and poet. This revelation puts a psychological spin on her pronouncements.
In many ways Léonard is the film’s centerpiece, and his character is the most problematic. In his novels, he draws promiscuously on the affairs of his life, including the clandestine six-year fling he’s been having with Selena. On the internet and at public events, he is attacked for writing thinly veiled kiss-and-tell tomes. He admits to friends that he can’t write any other way. Some, like Selena, warn him not to use their lives as “material.” Assayas’ point is that all fiction is, in effect, nonfiction. All art is autobiographical.
In an age when confessional blogs and reality TV are rampant, this deep thought, like so many others in the movie, comes across as something less than a revelation. The film is enjoyable but minor because, in the end, the characters don’t have quite enough dimension to be much more than brainy quipsters.
Assayas may not care that this is so. He’s operating on a breezier plane than usual, as evidenced by a scene in which Léonard inquires about a good candidate to record his audiobook and Selena answers “Juliette Binoche.” It’s a smart-dumb joke that carries the nonfiction of “Non-Fiction” too far. Even in a movie about the reality of unreality, some illusions should be maintained. Grade: B+ (In French with English subtitles. Rated R for some language and some sexuality/nudity.)