Olivier Assayas’s “Non-Fiction” is breathtakingly intelligent, immaculately shot, wonderfully incisive, and a bit frustrating. In others words, this is usual Assayas territory.
Well, it is — and it isn’t. “Non-Fiction” covers lighter ground than most of the prolific French filmmaker’s recent work. His last three films included a stunning ghost story starring Kristen Stewart (“Personal Shopper”), a dark chamber piece co-starring Stewart and Juliette Binoche (“Clouds of Sils Maria") and a swirling, '60s-set autobiographical drama (“Something in the Air”).
Those were three modern classics, albeit with moments best described as maddening. “Non-Fiction” is certainly not a classic. Yet it’s an involving, breezy treat all the same. The pace is leisurely, the sex handled realistically, the conversations long and winding.
Like “Sils Maria,” much of the film features intense, deeply personal discussion. Much of it is centered around the publishing world, and the upheaval caused by technology — specifically Kindles, iPhones and iPads.
This struggle over how to handle publishing in the digital age weighs heavily on Alain (Guillaume Canet), a literary editor who makes the difficult to decision to pass on the latest book from his longtime friend, Léonard (Vincent Macaigne).
Léonard is one of the more memorable characters in recent French cinema, a delightfully slovenly novelist who — as fate would have it — is sleeping with Alain’s wife, TV actress Selena (Binoche).
Alain, meanwhile, is carrying on an affair with an ambitious young editor (Christa Théret). All the while, Léonard attempts to hide his latest infidelity from his political consultant wife, Valerie (wonderfully played by Nora Hamzawi).
Got all of that? We are deep in bedroom farce territory here, and with a cast this strong, a script this whip-smart, and Paris locations this lovely, it’s difficult not to be spellbound.
Mostly spellbound, that is. There is no denying that the plot is nowhere near as strong as “Sils Maria” or Assayas’s masterful “Summer Hours.” The denouement is not particularly satisfying, and the great Binoche is sadly underutilized throughout.
Then there is Léonard. He is a fiercely original creation — imagine George Costanza as a hyper-intelligent, deliriously romantic struggling author. He is easy to adore, and just as easy to despise. To be frank, one’s level of antipathy toward Léonard will influence the level of satisfaction when “Non-Fiction” comes to a close.
That push-pull between annoyance and brilliance, satisfaction and upset, and lust and disgust is oh-so-Assayas. He also once again shows a remarkable ability to leapfrog between genres. In addition to the films referenced above, the director has tackled the story of Carlos the Jackal (“Carlos”), explored corporate espionage (“Demonlover”), and studied drug addiction (“Clean”).
No matter the genre, the performances in Assayas’s films are always on-point. This is particularly true of “Non-Fiction.” Macaigne’s work as Léonard is especially impressive.
Most viewers will feel that “Non-Fiction” ends on a positive note, but there is no denying that it will drive some audience members batty. Perhaps that’s the point. There’s no understanding love, but the ever-talented Assayas deftly captures its unpredictability, messiness and joy.
3 ½ stars (out of 4)
Starring Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet and Vincent Macaigne. Set in the Parisian publishing world, an editor and an author cope with a middle-age crisis, the changing industry and their wives. Directed by Olivier Assayas. 108 minutes. Rated R for some language and sexuality/nudity. In French with English subtitles. Opens Friday in the Dipson Eastern Hills.