A thoughtful man who has directed porn films much of his life faces the hurdle of waning job satisfaction in “The Pornographer.” With its promise of explicit sex — and one arousingly lensed hardcore scene — pic by sophomore writer-director Bertrand Bonello looks set to draw attention at its Cannes debut. In fact, this heartfelt intellectual endeavor is more concerned with the dilemma of how to approach sex and politics in daily life and how to revisit both topics if you’re a young filmmaker trying to make movies in the never-ending wake of the French New Wave. Bonello’s solution is to cast New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud in the title role, a gambit that renders the movie never less than interesting and occasionally quite funny and touching. Pic has some specialized international potential.
If nothing else, Bonello has managed the seemingly impossible task of integrating the actual sexual congress of two porn actors (Ovidie, Titof) in an honest, ungratuitous manner. The scene — in which Jacques Laurent (Leaud) returns to directing after a lengthy hiatus, during which the porn biz has shifted from celluloid to video — is both vital to and advances the story.
However, Jacques, now 50, looks away from the coupling, realizing he’s no longer suited to the only work he knows how to do. He needs the money but he also needs peace of mind as a man and as an artist. Jacques wants more emotion, fewer moans and an invisible cum shot; the producer wants hyperbolic thrusting, moaning nookie and gleaming evidence of ejaculation.
Jacques, we learn, was a prolific, hotshot porn director in the ’70s. But the money dried up before he got to complete his 1984 opus, “The Animal,” in which a pack of dogs and hunters pursue a young woman through the forest. Scenes from this unrealized pic flash through Jacques’ mind’s eye now and again.
Jacques has gone back to work to cover his and his second wife’s, Jeanne (Dominique Blanc, quietly supportive), debts. Joseph (Jeremie Renier), Jacques’ son by his first wife, left home after discovering what kind of movies his dad made. Incommunicado for several years, Joseph, now 17, phones, and father and son begin to get reacquainted. Although these scenes are deliberately awkward, the attempt to “connect” perfectly mirrors Jacques’ own search for meaning in the heart of middle age.
Joseph is part of a student political movement that has concluded the best form of protest is to say nothing (his two roommates have taken a vow of silence). Jacques also doesn’t say much as a rule, but when he delivers a lengthy, late-on monologue, the effect is mesmerizing.
Performances are a feast of controlled moroseness relieved by the perfectly captured comic stiffness of expedient porn dialogue. Helmer’s admiration for nature is interweaved throughout the film, counterbalancing the slightly sinister urban landscapes.
A trained musician, Bonello utilizes a three-movement structure, with the father-son imbroglio at the center. Elegantly lensed pic also plays as a commentary on the art movie as an endangered species: just as porn-makers are under financial constraints to cut corners, so are movies like this one in most film-producing countries.