An intimate, woman-focused relationship drama that boasts a rare maturity, “Sex Life of Plants” recognizes the primacy of biology while privileging the human element that separates us from vegetal matter. In Sebastian Brahm’s beautifully written, compassionate script, a thirtysomething woman wanting kids sees her happy future suddenly crumble when her b.f. suffers brain damage. Passion is gone, along with a sustainable partnership, but her need for a child doesn’t fade. Brahm’s sensitivity, and his ability to create a character who isn’t always sympathetic yet always understandable, makes “Sex Life” a standout title that could see limited international arthouse play.
With an admirable restraint that manages to avoid holding his characters at arm’s length, Brahm introduces his theme: Landscape architect Barbara (Francisca Lewin) wants to get pregnant. Her lawyer b.f., Guille (Mario Horton), is less keen: They’re enjoying life now, so why complicate matters? A surprisingly good sex scene contains one of the precious few explicit money shots with a non-pornographic reason for being: Guille pulls out, and she’s not pleased.
Later, while hiking together, Barbara spies a rare plant growing on a rock face; when she asks Guille to get it for her, seasoned filmgoers will know he’s going to fall. And fall he does, resulting in brain damage that renders him slower, scared and socially maladroit. Helpless, Barbara watches as her future crumbles away — and it was a really nice future. They were a good couple, they had fun together, and one imagines they would have made good parents. But now that’s no longer possible.
Viewers will feel terrible for Guille, but interestingly not always for Barbara. Her unspoken focus on procreation occasionally makes her seem unsympathetic, and we don’t sense that we’re getting inside her head, but Brahm does this in a way that respects a deeper psychological life, understanding that to reveal more would be giving less. Barbara is intriguingly complex, and therefore real. Recognizing she must move on if she’s to answer the call of her biological clock, she starts dating Nils (multihyphenate Cristian Jimenez), an entitled rich divorcee who was once her client. Unlike Guille, Nils wants a family, soon, but is he the right mate to sire Barbara’s offspring?
“Sex Life of Plants” maintains an atmosphere of hesitant expectation in which details may be left unspoken, yet psychological depth is satisfyingly pushed to the fore. Brahm credits Douglas Sirk, among others, as a key influence, and he’s unafraid to call his film “a woman’s picture,” though his is a very contemporary vision of that much-abused expression. Like Sirk (and Sirk’s successor Todd Haynes), he grants his characters a maturity all too rare in femme-centric pics, and one of the pleasures of “Sex Life” is that it treats its protags as well as its audience like adults.
Shooting was done chronologically, with Lewin given only the part of the script necessary for that moment; perhaps this is one of the reasons why her interior trajectory feels so honest and considered. Lensing is credited to two of Chile’s most talented directors of photography, Benjamin Echazarreta (“Gloria”) and Sergio Armstrong (“The Club”), and their informal, intimate camerawork develops a sense of closeness with the characters, reinforced by music in a minor key.