The faintly surreal reality of app-based romance is a 21st-century phenomenon with which cinema hasn’t yet fully got to grips: We’re still waiting for the sparkling, swift-witted romantic comedy that fully captures the choose-your-own-adventure immediacy of sex and dating via the likes of Tinder or Grindr. On the esoteric end of the spectrum, however, a trail has been elegantly blazed by “4 Days in France,” a sly, sexy and strangely disarming cruise along the queerer backroads of rural France that marks an intriguing debut for writer-director Jérôme Reybaud. Unapologetically rambling but never dull at over 140 minutes, this story of two gay lovers both separated and united by mobile distractions of the flesh loiters coolly where the sensibilities of Jacques Rivette and Alain Guiraudie intersect — which is to take nothing away from the droll peculiarity of Reybaud’s own voice.
A standout from last year’s Venice Critics’ Week selection, “4 Days in France” has since accumulated a number of niche bookings on the festival circuit, as well as some LGBT-oriented international distribution. (It is set for limited Stateside theatrical exposure this month; in the U.K., it went directly to home-viewing platforms.) That’s an optimum outcome for a first feature that is perhaps too subtly discursive (and sexually inexplicit) to accrue a major cult following; it is likely, however, to set Reybaud on a path to loftier festival berths for his future work.
“The road for the road’s sake” is how restless thirtysomething Parisian Pierre (Pascal Cervo) describes the woolly impulse that prompts him, early one standard-issue morning, to slip out of the apartment while his boyfriend Paul (Arthur Igual) sleeps, hit the road in his white Alfa Romeo and head for the countryside with no return trip in mind. Consider the brand of his car a winking description of his sex drive: With his cellphone as his compass, Pierre proceeds to criss-cross the landscape from man to man, either setting up casual hookups with the gay-specific dating app Grindr, or identifying local cruising hotspots online. “France is huge,” we are told. “Full of men, full of possibilities.”
Once the sterner, more sensitive Paul clocks that he’s been silently abandoned, however, technology becomes as much a threat to Pierre’s new freedom as it is an enabler. Paul himself heads south and gets tech-savvy, deftly manipulating Grindr in an attempt to pinpoint his missing man. Let’s just say that love stories for the digital age have changed since the coy days of “You’ve Got Mail” — in this world, lovers may recognize each other first from blurry thumbnail pictures of genitalia. Happily, Reybaud sees nothing sensational in such plot mechanics, as his wryly empathetic screenplay treats hookup culture with mature insouciance.
Through its alternating road trips, “4 Days in France” notes with tacit, witty irony the contrast in the ways the two men use a single technology: What for Pierre is a way of expanding his world from the strictures of a monogamous relationship is for Paul a way of narrowing his romantic search from any available man to one in particular. Neither is judged for his approach; the film is only too glad to split and subvert stereotype, differentiating between forms of gay desire disparate in attitude and appetite. Pierre and Paul’s respective odysseys also bring them into contact with a patchwork of non-queer outsiders of assorted sexes and stripes, some wholly sympathetic to their plight, others irately prejudiced. As a study of how alternative identities and sexualities thrive and survive in non-urban environments, Reybaud’s film is uncommonly perceptive, and often spacily funny.
Guiraudie’s “King of Escape” and the as-yet-unreleased “Staying Vertical” both spring to mind here, as Reybaud scrutinizes his characters’ most reckless or unusual behavior with unruffled acceptance: There is no “normal” in this world, just an expectation that everyone is kinked in their own way, be it to lonesome or passingly electric effect. It’s this principally vignette-built film’s breadth of human interest that fills out its languid running time: Martial Salomon’s editing keeps the pace easy while the varying urgency and stakes of the men’s respective missions remain distinct.
Meanwhile, veteran cinematographer Sabine Lancelin — who has previously shot for the likes of Guiraudie, Chantal Akerman and Manoel de Oliveira — brings classical weight and tactility to the film’s frames, in pointed contrast with the sensual limits of cellphone imagery: Through her keen lens, the hills and valleys of rural France aren’t presented as touristically pretty, but rich with life and erotic possibility, wildflowers practically winking at the roadside.