Smoother than cafe 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 nondigital 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.
At the start, sleek, vaguely patronizing publishing-house editor Alain (Canet) ushers disheveled novelist Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) into his office. Leonard’s newest manuscript, “Full Stop,” draws upon the writer’s nonfictional 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 it. 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 actor 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 Théret), 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.
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 publishing house and hastening the probable demise of the firm as Alain knows it.
There’s a fifth major character: political operative Valerie (Nora Hamzawi), married to Leonard. 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?
“Non-Fiction” plays as a comedy in its structure and a drama in the margins. Minor, clever, wonderfully acted, it makes room for jokes about “Star Wars,” Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” and, at one point, Binoche herself. It’s funny that way.
★★★ “Non-Fiction,” with Juliette Binoche, Guillaume Canet, Vincent Macaigne, Christa Théret, Nora Hamzawi. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. 107 minutes. In French, with English subtitles. Rated R for some language and sexuality/nudity. Opens June 14 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.