This is a story ostensibly about a love affair, but really just about Hélène (Laetitia Dosch), a divorced lecturer from Paris who is lost in infatuation. It’s a subtle and exquisite performance. The object of her desire is Alexandre (ballet star Sergei Polunin), a Russian diplomat and hunk with little substance beyond being able to explain the provenance of his tattoos. They couldn’t be more different. And yet this imbalance enhances the film’s central message.
He likes fast cars, Putin and Dior suits. She likes the seventeenth-century English playwright Aphra Behn. But still, they are together – secretly, on snatched afternoons, consumed by their thirst. Particularly her. In one scene she goes to the cinema to see Hiroshima Mon Amour, Alain Resnais’s French new wave classic. Not a fan. It’s a male fantasy run wild, she says, the camera lingering far too long on a beautiful, lusted-after woman. And so here is another kind of film, based on the 1991 autofictional work by Annie Ernaux, in which the female gaze gets sumptuous free rein.
Directed by Danielle Arbid (Parisienne), Simple Passion brims with close-ups: cheeks, ears, thighs. Time appears to slow as the camera observes Alex hazily, blearily, just as she does. There are many intense sex scenes. These are candid, realistic, unglamorous. And their relationship goes no deeper than that. They rarely speak to each other outside of her bedroom – and when they do, it’s in a broken franglais. He circles freely in and out of her life (he’s married to someone else). Every time he hops back to Moscow, in fact, she never knows whether she will lay eyes on him again.
Initially, it’s a thrill. But then it becomes a source of crippling anxiety. She goes from learning Russian while popping peas and listening to his voicemails on repeat to manically stabbing a vegetable patch with a shovel. And when he is around, everything else slides. It gets so bad her young son (Lou-Teymour Thion, quiet and unobtrusive) has to fend for himself and so his dad comes over to wrench him away.
Hélène is oblivious, and so are we. It seemed as though she got by and ran the house just fine. In reality, she was swept away long ago. Dosch is to thank for this illusion; it’s her show. In her hands, Hélène is aimless and careless and yet somehow immensely likeable. Alexandre, by contrast, is simple and undeveloped. Perhaps a little more flesh could have raised this film up a notch. But in this context, treating him purely as a hulk to be gazed at, it works.
The only real slip is the soundtrack: it’s schmaltz from start to finish. Choices like the Charles Aznavour cover by Gilbert Bécaud and the Flying Pickets’ Only You feel lazy and heavy-handed. But music aside, Dosch’s charisma and Arbid’s fluid style suffice to convey the full intensity of this particular histoire d’amour.
On Curzon Home Cinema in the UK Feb 5.