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An actress (Juliette Binoche), married to a literary editor (Guillaume Canet), is stepping out with one of his more troublesome authors in the Olivier Assayas confection "Non-Fiction." (IFC Films)
Smoother than café au lait, the low-keyed French confection “Non-Fiction” has a few things to say about publishing in the digital age; the old bourgeois guard making way for an adept, hungry new generation unattached to non-digital media; and touchy literary and artistic egos, falling in and out of favor, and bed.
The considerable appeal of the film, the latest from critic-turned-writer-director Olivier Assayas, lies in a glancing, dispassionate touch and a ruminative comic tone. That much can be said of much of his work, including the recent “Clouds of Sils Maria.” That film starred Juliette Binoche, as does this one, whose fellow ensemble members include top-billed Guillaume Canet. They’re both effortlessly right. As always with contemporary French-language pictures in a certain weight class, I spent a great deal of time envying the bourgeois characters’ workaday rituals of conducting business in phases: first, the office; then, lunch out somewhere, or drinks; then, a dinner party where the conversation rarely escapes the topic of their own imminent irrelevance.
Well. That last part, I don’t envy. But as a backdrop, there’s always a nice, crackling fire going in the fireplace.
“Non-Fiction” wastes no time. At the start, sleek, vaguely patronizing publishing house editor Alain (Canet) ushers disheveled novelist Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) into his office. They talk about this and that: a recent political novel full of barely disguised real-life characters, for example. “I thought no one reads books anymore,” Leonard says, waiting for Alain to broach the real reason for the meeting.
Leonard’s newest manuscript, “Full Stop,” draws upon the writer’s non-fictional romantic entanglements for inspiration. At lunch, Leonard finally asks Alain what he thought of his book, which is another way of asking if Alain will publish. His reply, casually dismissive (“I thought you understood”), seals the deft 10-minute power play we’ve just witnessed.
Assayas then takes us to dinner, at the home of Alain and his actress wife, Selena (Binoche). The guests include a blogger more proud of his 5,000 hits a day than with his actual literary output. Alain’s publishing house has recently hired a digital transition head, Laure (Christa Theret), whom Selena blithely describes as a brainy “sexual predator” type. She senses, accurately, that Alain is having an affair with her. And there are intimations in the opening scenes of “Non-Fiction” that Selena, too, has a lover.
In French, this film’s title is “Double Lives,” though Assayas toyed with calling it “E-Book.” Each new discussion pulls a variation on the theme of technological ambivalence. For someone like Laure, the world of print and actual paper can’t disappear fast enough, and there’s a bit of plot introduced midway involving a telecom giant’s interest in buying the firm and hastening the probable demise of the firm as Alain knows it.
In barely disguised code, “Non-Fiction” operates as a wry analysis of Assayas’ chosen profession as filmmaker. “It’s the elderly who read,” Alain notes. The specialized audience he covets is the same sort of audience an Olivier Assayas movie covets on the precarious modern-day art-house circuit.
There’s a fifth major character: political operative Valerie, married to Leonard, played with forthright, unaffected charm by Nora Hamzawi. She’s at once the most driven and idealistic of this group. Two casual and reliably effective lines of suspense inform “Non-Fiction”: How, if ever, will the characters learn of their partners’ infidelities? And what will happen then?
“Some things are better left unspoken,” Valerie says to husband Leonard, when he tries to broach the subject of his affair.
“Not in a couple,” he counters. To which she says: “Especially in a couple.”
Assayas shot his film on Super 16mm film, and the visual results are warm, slightly grainy, defiantly non-digital (though the director has worked in all formats). “We must choose the change” that looms ahead, Laure tells Alain, “not suffer it.” A lot of the dialogue comes out that way, in succinct, facile axioms.
It plays as a comedy in its structure, and a drama in the margins, on the sidelines. Minor, clever, wonderfully acted, “Non-Fiction” makes room for jokes about “Star Wars,” Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” and, at one point, Binoche herself. It’s funny that way.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
“Non-Fiction” — 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for some language and sexuality/nudity)
Running time: 1:47
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; musicboxtheatre.com.