This article contains spoilers for Simple Passion.
Dosch is uninhibited in her portrayal of a woman in the throes of love, although younger audiences may find the film’s sexual politics off-putting.
Simple Passion tells the enigmatic tale of a middle-aged woman obsessed with the idea of love itself. Based on Annie Ernaux’s 1992 eponymous novel, it centres on the intense first person experience of academic Hélène (Laetitia Dosch), divorced and now living with her young son in a tastefully furnished home in the Paris suburbs.
The story depicts her doomed love affair with a married Russian official, Alexandre (played by Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin in his first non-dancing role). Franco-Lebanese director Danielle Arbid traces Hélène’s shifting emotions from sexual attraction to something approaching insanity over the course of a very long year. The affair is told in a series of sex-filled flashbacks and sprawling reveries, weaved together by a surprising pop soundtrack.
The film is cleverly framed by Hélène’s present-day narration, which is the account she gives to her psychiatrist. At the start, we find out that ever since meeting Alexandre at a dinner party in Oporto, she has been existing in a kind of fog. “Since last September, all I’ve done is wait for a man. For him to call, for him to come to my place,” she recalls. Indeed, Alexandre appears magically and whenever he likes at Hélène’s house, “like some sort of abstract being who could almost resemble God” (according to Arbid). As we spend more time with the couple, it becomes clear that Hélène’s feelings are painfully one-sided; furthermore, the couple have nothing in common (besides their sexual chemistry).
As Hélène’s love inexplicably deepens, we see her dropping everything from prior engagements with friends to, more dangerously, neglecting caring for her son in order to meet with Alexandre and have sex. And have sex they do: against the walls, over Hélène’s kitchen table, across the marble stairs, and in every position imaginable. Hélène’s obsession soon tips over into what can only be described as morbid insanity. When Alexandre eventually disappears, she takes a day trip to Moscow, where he habitually resides, simply to “breathe the same air that he breathes.”
Though the film’s focus on female pleasure is positive and its depiction of female sexual desire laudable in its frankness, it is also open to criticism. Hélène spends every waking hour thinking of Alexandre, or else begging him to stay when he won’t (it bears reminding here that Hélène is a grown woman, not a teenager). Her repeated sexual encounters, emotionally unfulfilling as they are, are frustrating to witness, although the film itself is not disparaging of her desires. Hélène’s predicament isn’t due to a lack of self-awareness either: “even feminists turn submissive once they’re in love,” Hélène tells her friend one day over lunch. (“Maybe he doesn’t love you,” her friend says in return, revealing what Hélène is perhaps unable or unwilling to accept.)
Hélène’s shaky state of mind reaches an apotheosis in the film’s coda, set eight months later, which shows the pair reuniting one last time. But it is a fantasy which Hélène admits never happened. Miraculously, by the end of the film, she has come to her senses and accepted that the affair is over. Yet the experience has been one that has changed her forever: “With him, I saw what I am capable of. Basically, of everything,” says Helène.
Ernaux was scorned at the time of the book’s release, with the press accusing of her showing a woman submissive to a man’s needs. In a recent interview with Cineuropa, Arbid relates Ernaux’s thoughts on the matter: “I think that when we’re in love, we know no limits. I wait for a man in the same way that a man might wait for a woman. It has nothing to do with the fact that I’m a woman, it’s the fact of being in love.”
This state of being in love would have otherwise become quite tedious if not for Dosch’s committed performance. The film, lacking in any real plot developments, uses close-up shots deftly to bring us into Hélène’s world and the heavy fog of her memories. With superimposed images of her face and changing landscapes, we see her almost as a stranger would, lost in her fantasies, eyes shut while riding a train, for instance. These impressionistic scenes give the film something of an experimental edge, and are effective at signaling the intensity of Hélène’s obsession. They are perhaps overused as transitions in the film’s second half, where the storytelling has become a bit tired and repetitive.
Although explicit and sometimes too long for this reviewer’s liking, the sex scenes are never pornographic or exploitative. They reveal the intensity of Hélène’s passion, as well as her sexual appetite, which she indulges in with enviable abandon. Arbin and cinematographer Pascal Granale are careful to capture the emotional nuances of Dosch’s performance, training the camera on her face—the expressiveness of which allows us to gauge the full complexity of Hélène’s experience. Polunin is also confident in the nude, but overall his performance leaves something to be desired. His somewhat wooden portrayal is strangely fitting, though, as ultimately, Alexandre cannot or will not provide the emotional connection that Hélène so desperately craves.
Simple Passion is a fascinating film about the power of love both as a productive and destructive force, and what it can make us do against our better judgement. Audiences will come for dreamy Polunin and his dancer’s physique, but they’ll stay for Dosch’s nuanced and captivating performance.
Simple Passion will be available to stream exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema from 5 February.
Words by Camilla Patini
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