Two strangers meet through a personal ad and live out their fantasy of encounters based purely on sex without strings in “A Pornographic Affair.” This chronicle of the strange paths of passion is something of a tease in that it appears to promise dramatic twists that never materialize. Still, the low-key but absorbing two-hander is distinguished by smooth-as-silk direction from Belgian helmer Frederic Fonteyne and by fine performances from Nathalie Baye — who won the best actress award in Venice — and Sergi Lopez. With precision marketing, it could stir arthouse interest as a classy date movie for discerning adults.
The drama is set up within a quasi-documentary context, with both partners recounting the development of the affair to an unseen interviewer. The minor variations and contradictions in their accounts add to the film’s observation of the gap between male-female perspectives.
Agreeing to keep personal details about home and professional life out of the picture, the nameless, fortysomething lovers (Baye, Lopez), both of whom wear their advancing years well, meet in a bar and then check into a hotel for an afternoon romp. The film toys with the audience’s voyeuristic expectations by denying access to their room, instead training the camera on the hotel corridor as neighboring guests and maids pass by.
From their first meeting, the couple’s rapport has a warmth and immediacy that would appear to compromise the plan for semi-anonymity, but they maintain some distance nonetheless while making appointments for the same time each week. With each meeting, the rules begin gradually to change, starting with his suggestion of dinner together and proceeding until after months of encounters, she proposes they try standard-issue love-making for the first time.
Again tweaking audience curiosity but declining to satisfy it, the script refuses to divulge the precise nature of the less orthodox sexual recreation they have been engaging in each week. But when they cross the boundaries into the territory of regular coupledom in an encounter in which the camera enters the hotel room for the first time, the resulting intimacy and emotional connection irrevocably alter their weekly trysts. Change is further hastened by the intrusion of the outside world when an old man collapses in the hotel corridor and they accompany him to the hospital.
French-language cinema seems never to tire of placing relationships and every detail of their evolution under a magnifying glass, and beyond the way the union is brought about here, there is little that’s unfamiliar. But the screenplay by Philippe Blasband — who also penned Fonteyne’s promising first feature, “Max and Bobo” — develops its themes intelligently, particularly in the latter part , when the partners touch each other beyond the original terms of their agreement. Starting out playfully and gradually becoming more intense, the drama musters a quiet poignancy as the lovers begin to second-guess each other in ways that prove harmful to the happiness of both.
Both veteran Baye and Lopez, best known for his role in “Western,” turn in strong, measured work. Her poise is interrupted at times by bursts of nervous chatter or sadness, and his tenderness and composure by moments of irritation or less controlled emotion.
Lenser Virginie Saint-Martin shoots the interview sections in a probing docu-style and the actual encounters more fluidly, displaying an atmospheric feel for the streets and bars of a mostly gray, wet Paris.