There’s a delicious irony in seeing Olivier Assayas’ thoroughly French comedy “Non-Fiction” in America — because audiences, in watching a movie where characters talk about the death of literature, will have to read more than a book’s worth of dialogue in the subtitles.
It begins with two men having lunch. Alain (Guillaume Canet) is a book editor at a prestigious publishing house, who keeps up on all the trends in his fast-changing industry. Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) was one of Alain’s hottest authors once, but Alain is less impressed with his current manuscript — a roman à clef focusing on the disheveled Leonard’s romantic life.
What Alain doesn’t realize is that the character Xenia in Leonard’s new book, the woman with whom Leonard’s central character has a torrid affair, is based on Alain’s wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche), an actress on a popular cop show. (The English title of the cop show is “Collusion,” which I think is Assayas’ sly wink at American politics.)
Alain’s not exactly innocent here. He’s having his own fling with Laure (Christa Théret), a new hire at the publishing house, who is assigned to figure out how to upgrade the imprint for the digital world.
The only main character not having an affair is Leonard’s wife, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi). She’s an campaign aide to a socialist politician (Nicolas Bauchaud), and she’s as idealistic about her boss’ politics as she is about marriage, in spite of evidence to the contrary in both cases.
These stories play out mostly in smart banter among friends, where they talk about whether digital books will bring the end of libraries or whether a writer has the right to appropriate the lives of the people around him for fictionalization.
It’s not the first time Assayas has deconstructed art in full view — his 1996 movie-in-a-movie “Irma Vep” springs to mind — but this one is all in the talking. The dialogue has a dry wit, and there are even inside jokes. (For example, Leonard’s description of a moment from his and Selena’s affair name-drops the director Michael Haneke, with whom Binoche has worked.)
Binoche is great, as always, carefree in her love life and quite zen about the limitations of being an older actress. The surprise discovery is Hamzawi, an engaging actress who seems to relish when Valérie matter-of-factly cuts through Leonard’s self-absorbed bullcrap.
The rich veins of conversation in “Non-Fiction” are a delight, as if the audience is invited to a dinner party with some smart, funny and thoughtful intellects. Even reading what they say is a pleasure.
Opened May 3 in select cities; opens Friday, May 31, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for some language and sexuality/nudity. Running time: 107 minutes; in French with subtitles.