America has the Oscars; France has the César Awards. In a normal year, being nominated for 13 of the latter would be a sign of an exceptional achievement in French cinema — a phenomenon on par with “Amélie” or “A Prophet” commanding recognition in nearly every category en route to worldwide acclaim. But 2020 was not a normal year, and it’s a bit misleading to see writer-director Emmanuel Mouret’s mildly carbonated ensemble drama “Love Affair(s)” up for so many awards (it won only one, for Émilie Dequenne’s standout supporting performance), knowing it’s hardly insta-classic material.
The movie, which was to premiere at Cannes had the festival not been canceled by the coronavirus, concerns the romantic entanglements of (at least) nine characters whose actions often contradict the way they see themselves. How can we be so sure? These eloquent characters love to hear themselves talk — and so do we, as there’s a poetry to their near-constant stream of conversation — spending the better part of the movie making grand pronouncements about their views on romance and relationships, all in more or less the same voice (Mouret’s, obviously). But when compared with their behavior, it becomes clear that they’re not trying to convince their listeners so much as themselves.
Hence the film’s French title, “Les choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait” — which translates to “the things we say, the things we do” — the implication being that the two categories of “choses” don’t necessarily agree. This is a psychological point of view that dovetails almost perfectly with my own core philosophy on human nature, namely: Never underestimate people’s ability to rationalize their behavior. Or, to pervert Joan Didion’s famous phrase: We tell ourselves stories in order to live (with ourselves). Or more bluntly still: Don’t believe anything anyone says.
Maxime (Niels Schneider, the towheaded ménage-à-third from Xavier Dolan’s “Heartbeats,” looking slump-shouldered and slightly pathetic here) thinks of himself as an aspiring novelist, though in truth, he works as a translator. The only fictions he tells — innocuously enough — are one-sided versions of past break-ups, like the ex (Jenna Thiam) who fell for his best bud (Guillaume Gouix). Maxime’s audience for the moment is his cousin François’ three-months-pregnant girlfriend, Daphné (Camélia Jordana, sporting ginormous specs), a Parisian film editor now nesting in the country. Since François is away, she meets Maxime at the train station and the two begin to talk.
In the tradition of work by Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen, “Love Affair(s)” is structured as a series of stories within stories, as Maxime and Daphné trade accounts of how he came to be single and she in a couple. We’re meant to see this exchange as a kind of low-key foreplay, although the idea that she would fall for him over the course of one afternoon says less about his charms than about the fragility of her feelings for François (Vincent Macaigne, a gifted actor with an incredibly narrow range, plays the lovable schlub).
According to Daphné’s story, François — who was married at the time — hit on her in the street one evening. She wasn’t looking for a relationship (in fact, she was reeling from a rejection by her boss, played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), but gradually grew to adore this sad little man. By her own account, Daphné realized their relationship had gotten serious while François was away on a two-week trip. But if that’s the dynamic between these two, it’s odd that François’ current absence — which he uses to visit ex-wife Louise (Dequenne) — doesn’t also make her heart grow fonder. This time, she swoons for their houseguest.
Perhaps this inconsistency is part of the pattern on which Mouret seems to be commenting, just one more way in which humans don’t adhere to their own narratives. We’re messy that way, and it’s refreshing to see that behavior depicted in a relationship roundelay, although this real-world observation doesn’t necessarily translate into a sense of realism for the viewer. It’s far too easy to detect the director’s hand in everything, manipulating his characters’ fates. Little twists that might surprise us if they weren’t scripted instead serve a larger, somewhat shaggy thesis.
From an audience’s standpoint, the effect is not unlike irony, dramatically speaking, since we possess insights that give the characters’ words a second meaning. It all feels quite literary, which is surely Mouret’s intent. Characters hypothesize about factors such as desire and selflessness, but not a pair of them possess chemistry or the sense that they’ve connected at a time when they are in emotionally similar places.
Some — like François hitting on Daphné while searching for a lost glove — seem downright implausible, and aren’t helped by the too-obvious collection of music cues. “Love Affair(s)” would have benefited enormously from an original score (doing so could have earned it a record-breaking 14th César nom). Still, for French and art-house audiences, there’s no denying the pleasure of a sapiosexual romance such as this, where the turn-on is to be found in the characters’ intelligence. Quietest but most powerful among them is Dequenne (the Dardennes’ long-ago “Rosetta” discovery, a powerhouse back then who only improves with age), whose character may be the only one who’s truly honest with herself.