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Review | 'Non-Fiction' is an unconventional treat, challenging the norms of the romantic-comedy genre

Writer-Director Olivier Assayas' film doesn't care about easy laughs and happy endings, instead aspiring for the bittersweet realism of life's complications.
Credit: IFC FIlms

ST. LOUIS — Leonard (Vincent Macaigne) writes auto-fiction. In other words, he takes pieces of his own life, most notably his sexual adventures, and places them in a fictional world. For him, it's real life placed in a blender of words, showing no harm to the souls he has put on a page without their knowledge. 

It is this treatment of women that drives Leonard's friend and publisher, Alain (Guillaume Canet), to turn down his latest novel, a manuscript that is another rendition of, as Leonard himself later puts it, a "feel-bad novel." This action causes their working and personal-including Alain's actress wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche), and Leonard's political assistant wife, Valerie (Nora Hamzawi)-to run into some turbulence. 

The nectar of writer/director Olivier Assayas' new film, Non-Fiction, is the fact that handles real touchy yet vital issues like the changing landscape of the publishing world and the struggles of an aging marriage and friendship with breezy agility. I have a profound respect for comedies that don't come off directly as laugh-seeking ventures.

Assayas, who got my attention with Personal Shopper, isn't here to create slapstick Hollywood-esque drama that we all see coming from a mile away. He wants to peer into our personal life, pick something up and toss it up in the air, paying close attention to how we react. 

Maybe the French have a certain level of tenacity that Americans can't even dream of having, or this is truly a work of fiction. When two people inside this close-knit of friends starts having an affair, you expect certain plot devices to swing into motion. But then another affair begins, and the third act isn't an explosive device that someone steps on, yet an actual continuation of life. Assayas is more interested in the reaction than the action. 

I'll be honest. The first half of the film wasn't an easy sit. The French language moves as fast as one of their trains, blowing through 2-3 scenes without a pause, leaving the viewer sprinting to keep up. The story jumps around a bit, keeping you off-balance and without full knowledge of place and time. You get to know these characters, yet remain a safe distance away just in case something awful happens. Assayas creates an atmosphere like a party where you can attend and drink, yet can't talk to anyone. It's all impersonal yet personal at the same time.

The actors take to their characters quite well, spinning Assayas' words like a seasoned pro. While Binoche and Canet are solid, I felt most intrigued and moved by Macaigne's Leonard, a tortured and rather doomed novelist who writes what he sees and experiences. He is the director's muse for sure. Here's a guy who rages against the new machine of blogs, digital websites, and contemporary fluff that fills the shelves. You'll cart him out on a plank before he writes a happy story. For him, life is a cynical battle of everlasting contempt, and not a lovely endeavor. He has an earnest vibe that labors until the gear is switched into a unapologetic Rapunzel. Leonard and Alain share this anti-hero outlook. It may be the only thing they do. 

That's not to say the other members of the cast don't get a moment. Binoche, who dominated this year's sci-fi bonkers drama, High Life, changes speeds here to play a conflicted and passionate woman. Selena is a good actress, but she doesn't particularly like it much anymore. It's burned out her senses, yet she can't get away from it, so she sets the burner under her own life. 

The chilly vibe does thaw out eventually, especially for the final scene, which was easily my favorite, involving Macaigne and Hamzawi. Sometimes, a desperate need to be honest with a genre can make the warmth hit you out of nowhere. I liked that about Non-Fiction, an unconventional romantic-comedy. 

Assayas is one of those filmmakers who only makes a film when there is a need to express a desire inside himself that can't be spoken with plain words. He wants to challenge you and entertain you with realism, slipping in bits of fiction into his "auto-fiction."

Non-Fiction takes a while to get moving, and probably won't leave you all warm and fuzzy, but the furious manner of the French language and fleet of foot honesty should impress you. I'd open a bottle of wine and give it a shot.

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