As its privileged Parisian protagonists sip wine, cheat on their spouses and engage in talky debates about the future of literature in the digital age, “Non-Fiction” would collapse like a sad souffle were it not for the quality of the talent involved. Filmmaker Olivier Assayas and his sterling French cast have made a surprisingly warm and consistently witty movie.
Like earlier Assayas films, including “Summer Hours” and “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Non-Fiction,” opening Friday at the Embarcadero, features complicated characters and addresses issues such as artistic integrity versus commercial success, truth versus image, and the rejection by younger generations of older generations’ treasures.
Set in Paris’ publishing world, the story centers on two couples experiencing change.
It begins when Alain (Guillaume Canet), a polished editor at a prestigious publishing house, informs Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), a rumpled-looking author who writes novels based on his affairs with well-known women, that he is rejecting his latest manuscript. Alain considers the novel tired and exploitive.
At home, Leonard’s wife, Valerie (Nora Hamzawi), who works tirelessly for a political candidate, doesn’t give Leonard the sympathy he expects when he informs her about Alain’s rejection.
Alain’s wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche), an actress on a cop series she dislikes, praises Leonard’s manuscript, however. Her opinion may stem from the fact that she and Leonard have been having an affair.
Alain, meanwhile, is sleeping with Laure (Christa Theret), the young woman he’s hired to transform the publishing house into a digital operation. Alain loves old-fashioned books; Laure’s desire to wipe out everything old disturbs him. She even likens Twitter to haiku. But he’d rather make the transition than be a dinosaur.
Talky dinner-party and other material in which characters debate whether e-books and social media are destroying or democratizing writing dominates the movie’s first half-hour. Will libraries vanish? Are celebrity-voiced audiobooks the only books that will survive?
While presented with intelligence and flair, these lengthy exchanges take up near-excessive screen time. Some viewers may find them tedious.
But soon, as all the plotlines kick in, the characters’ personalities take on fascinating added shades.
We see insecurities beneath confident facades and numerous little hypocrisies. At the same time, genuine romantic love is expressed, along with devotion to artistic craft.
As the characters struggle to leave substantial and indelible marks on a world where memories are short and images transitory, the film comes together as a smart, sophisticated serio-pastry.
Memorable moments, many comic, include Leonard’s clunky attempt to confess his infidelities to Valerie. She doesn’t need to hear it, she tells him. She knows he cheats— she’s read his novels.
The cast sparkles. Hamzawi, relatively new to the big screen, is particularly wonderful when revealing the seemingly harsh Valerie’s warmer side.
Assayas gives frequent collaborator Binoche a playful scene, in which Selena, played by Binoche, talks about the real Juliette Binoche, whom she’s contacted about voicing an audiobook.
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet, Vincent Macaigne, Nora Hamzawi
Written and directed by: Olivier Assayas
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes