For a particular cohort of the moviegoing population, there are few pleasures more sublime than watching a group of good-looking Parisians chattering over wine, coffee and the occasional cigarette about intellectual subjects, against attractive backdrops of cozy cafes and well-appointed living rooms.
The filmmaker Olivier Assayas goes to almost parodic lengths to serve this exact subculture with “Non-Fiction,” a silky seriocomic roundelay starring Juliette Binoche and Guillaume Canet. Talky, sophisticated and self-consciously erudite, this slice of French literary life is in many ways familiar: Two couples work and socialize together, nursing hidden suspicions and regrets, all the while carrying on more than a few clandestine affairs (this is Paris, after all). But Assayas uses that comfortable framework to mount a steady critique of the enormous technological changes currently engulfing the world, which affect everything from politics to private life, from art to entertainment.
“Non-Fiction” opens as a novelist named Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) meets with his longtime friend and publisher, Alain (Canet), who over the course of a crowded bistro lunch works up the courage to tell the author that he won’t be acquiring his latest manuscript. (Léonard’s latest work, he notes, was a “worst-seller.”) Crushed, Léonard tells his girlfriend, Valerie (Nora Hamzawi), who reacts with crisp practicality; she’s far more passionate about the politician she works for and the campaign he’s mounting in the provincial hinterlands. Meanwhile Alain’s actress wife Selena (Binoche) is trying to decide whether to re-up for season 4 of a cop series called “Collusion,” on which she plays “a crisis management expert.” On set during a lunch break, she complains that she’s fed up with the show’s flimsy excuse for its escapist violence. “I’m getting tired of all this revenge stuff,” she says wearily.
Every conversation in “Non-Fiction” has to do with the anxieties of its middle-aged protagonists as they navigate the tectonic shifts that threaten their once-complacent lives. Will e-books and blogs supplant serious literature? Are texts and tweets the new Mallarmé? When radical transparency is prized above everything else, will privacy be passe? What are the ethical boundaries between life and art? Is the current zeitgeist liberating ideas or monetizing drivel? And can a public devoid of critical thinking skills tell the difference?
Assayas engages all of these questions by way of a story that moves with swift episodic ease. Although most of “Non-Fiction” consists of people talking to each other, the actors are so good and the settings so evocative that the viewer feels complicit in their angst. There are moments when the filmmaker seems to take a bit of ironic license, as if to acknowledge how very French it all is: there’s an amusing running gag involving the pretentious Austrian auteur Michael Haneke, and one about Binoche herself. But for audiences who love nothing better than to immerse themselves in an idealized version of high-minded bohemia at its most tastefully nonchalant, “Non-Fiction” is pure bliss.
And, even at his most preciously meta, Assayas is never less than sincere. His characters may be blinkered by their own unexamined privilege, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a point, especially when it comes to the political costs of convenience and constant self-distraction. “The world in a nutshell,” Alain pronounces. “No one asks us, and then it’s too late.” “Non-Fiction” leaves a couple of promising threads untouched, especially when Léonard discovers that he’s gone viral after exploiting a past relationship, and the ending, while satisfying, feels oddly perfunctory. But this is a handsome, hugely enjoyable movie that invites the spectators to reflect on precisely what they value, both on screen and off. “Is it good?” is a question repeatedly asked throughout “Non-Fiction.” When it comes to the myriad subjects at hand, the debate rages on. As for the movie itself, the answer is a resounding yes.
R. At Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row cinemas. Contains brief profanity, sexuality, brief nudity and smoking. In French with subtitles. 108 minutes.