Despite their individual box-office success, the exceedingly mild BDSM frolics of the “Fifty Shades” films did little to revive Hollywood’s interest in the kind of frosty, high-style erotic drama that was de rigueur in the early 1990s — around the time that French writer Annie Ernaux scored some international renown with her sexually frank autofiction novel “Simple Passion.” French filmmakers’ loyalty to such material has remained more steadfast, however, so it’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken nearly 20 years for Ernaux’s provocation to reach the screen. Finally, Franco-Lebanese director Danielle Arbid has taken a gutsy stab at it, with an imperfect but glassily compelling study of obsessive, finally debilitating desire that honors its source with an unblinking female gaze.
The result, publicly premiering in San Sebastian after being selected for this year’s cancelled Cannes fest, plays something like Catherine Breillat let loose on E.L. James, with all the sensual highs and occasional, awkward lapses in style that the comparison implies. Yet the film’s riveting star Laetitia Dosch is completely undimmed by any such inconsistencies as her character cycles ferociously through the fraught stages of an intensely sexual but romantically one-sided affair with a married man. Somewhat unfairly, international interest in the film is likelier to center on her male co-star, Ukrainian ballet bad boy Sergei Polunin, who delivers the full-frontal physicality demanded by the material, but can’t hold a candle to Dosch for expressivity or nuance. Adventurous arthouse distributors and audiences will come for him, and stay for her.
To be fair, the film works the imbalance between the two stars to its advantage. In his first non-dancing film lead, Polunin has a vague, unreadable presence that proves quite apt for a story of completely unequal attraction, in which the male partner permits only a meeting of bodies, while the female partner pursues a meeting of minds. We’re given only the faintest details of how Hélène, a Parisian literature professor and single mother, first met Russian Embassy official Alexandre, but we first meet her already in the depths of obsession: “Since last September, all I’ve done is wait for a man,” she sighs in an introductory voiceover, delivered drily to an unseen psychiatrist.
As we soon see, she’s been “waiting” for Alexandre despite seeing him constantly: While her young son Paul (Lou-Teymour Thion, perfectly exasperated but never precocious) is away at school or with her ex (Grégoire Colin), her surly Russian lover frequently makes extended house calls, during which they roughly fornicate in every imaginable position, on every available surface, but rarely exchange much more than small talk, and brusquely at that.
Though Hélène finds herself dependent on the sex, she’s exasperated by Alexandre’s refusal to get personally intimate with her, giving nothing away of himself beyond the existence of a wife and family in Moscow. The longer he physically leads her on and emotionally shuts her off, the more agitated and irrational her state of mind grows, until she can scarcely function in any capacity, losing focus on work, becoming an absent, unavailable mother to her son, and at one low point booking an impulsive day-return flight to Moscow “just to breathe the same air.”
It’s a fixation that seems increasingly perverse, since the longer we spend around them — and Arbid and cinematographer Pascale Granel ensure that we’re up in their business as intimately as possible — the clearer it becomes that Hélène and Alexandre have nothing in common besides their sexual chemistry. She’s a liberal intellectual romantic who spends her time researching Restoration-era playwright Aphra Behn; he’s a brutish misogynist who rejects books, berates her for wearing short skirts and is devoted to Vladimir Putin. Arbid has wittily worked of some her leading man’s own controversial attitudes into the script, though it’s notable that his notorious Putin chest tattoo has been covered up, while his other, plentiful ink remains: Even in the context of a graphic erotic drama, some provocations really are too much of a turn-off.
There’s a strain of comedy, albeit dark and bitter as licorice, in Hélène’s stubborn determination to invent a romance where there can be none, but if “Simple Passion” is quite dispassionate in the way it tracks the futility of her efforts, it’s not cruel or condescending about her desires either. Rather, this distinctly sex-positive film invites the question of why exhilarating erotic fulfillment can’t be enough in some cases, and why we’re socially conditioned to dignify it with a heart-to-heart connection.
That tacit line of inquiry lends genuine weight and power to the film’s multiple, prodigiously athletic sex scenes, which stand out for their avoidance of any gauzy soft-porn aesthetic: Opting for sharp, unsparing digital, Arbid and Granel largely shoot in the hard, bright daylight of afternoon trysts, making for onscreen sex that looks as, well, nakedly natural as it gets, without resorting to affected grittiness. As befits Hélène’s point of view, this is the rare film in its genre that may well give treat the male form with less modesty than its female counterpart, though Dosch’s performance is uninhibited in all senses. In her richest role since breaking out in 2017’s “Jeune Femme,” the actor holds nothing back physically, but it’s her face, constantly registering shifting internal tides of desire, disappointment and devastation, that holds us.
Dosch is an especially vital life source to “Simple Passion” in its second half, as Arbid’s storytelling starts circling a little repetitively: The challenge of portraying sensual ennui without succumbing to tedium is perhaps easier to pull off on the page than on the screen. The filmmaking, too, also loses some of its tightness and edge, with several scenes near-scuppered with either heavy-handed or peculiarly tone-deaf pop music cues that don’t even carry much ironic charge. Why put Hélène through the emotional wringer as much as this film does, only to soundtrack her psyche to the puny tinkle of the Flying Pickets’ “Only You?” In a film that otherwise regards a woman’s sexual and romantic appetites with clarity and cool, this is a rare moment of betrayal.