Simple Passion review – sensitive French study of erotic obsession | Film

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The French-Swiss actor Laetitia Dosch lavishes all her underappreciated star quality on this insouciantly explicit movie about amour fou and erotic obsession, adapted by the director Danielle Arbid from the 1991 novel by Annie Ernaux.

Dosch plays Hélène, a university lecturer in Paris, divorced with a young son, who has fallen passionately in love with an icily sexy, dead-eyed and tattooed young Russian diplomat called Alexandre, played by Ukrainian-born ballet star Sergei Polunin. When he is not driving too fast while buzzing from Scotch in his top-of-the-range Audi and giving Hélène top-of-the-range orgasms, Alexandre has a habit of not returning her pitifully submissive voicemails. He casually leaves her waiting in the midday hotel room where they’d agreed to meet in all her brand new La Perla lingerie, while he disappears back to Moscow to spend quality time with his wife.

Dosch brings a wonderful humanity and sensitivity to the role, and the movie begins with a sensational closeup on her face as she wonderingly recounts to an unseen person how and when (though not exactly why) the affair began and how by fanatically recalling the details she feels she might somehow bring the affair back to life in the present. With her tremulous secret half-smile, she seems always on the verge of laughing dismissively or bursting into tears. It’s a shame that Dosch’s character could not have been given a less cliched job (interspersing sex scenes with coolly cerebral lectures about Baudelaire, Aphra Behn etc), and a shame that she could not have been cast opposite a better actor, or – dare I say it? – an actual actor. But of course it is Polunin’s very reptilian unresponsiveness which makes him mysterious and attractive. (The Vladimir Putin tattoo which Polunin famously had inked on his chest has been covered by makeup for this film.)

Hélène is functioning reasonably well while this madly destructive affair carries on. She takes her young son Paul (Lou-Teymour Thion) to school and home again, and just about manages to fix his meals, though always in an agreeable state of post-coital dishevelment and reverie after long bouts of illicit daytime sex. (Is there any other kind?) Occasionally, she will go out for a movie with her sane, humorous friend Anita (Caroline Ducey); they go to see Hiroshima Mon Amour and Hélène marvels at the way Emmanuelle Riva gets to be imploringly addressed by her suitor. Simple Passion is very funny on the way poor Hélène will suddenly turn off her hairdryer, fearing that she might not be able to hear her phone, and I laughed when she takes a weekend break in Florence and finds herself gazing at the buttocks of the replica David statue in the Piazza della Signoria. Yes – there is a certain resemblance to Polunin’s buttocks.

It is also excellent on the overwhelming and devastating sense of loss both after and during an affair: those dead stretches when Hélène has to wonder, yet again, if it is all over; she is in denial about the awful truth that if you have to wonder … then, yes, it is all over. Hers is the agony of not knowing whether simply to surrender yourself utterly to that loss. There is also a great sequence when Hèlène – stunned into a state of shock when the end does appear to have come – takes a ride on a train and finds herself looking at the faces of all the placid, evidently unlovelorn people with her. She is crushed by the pure, unbearable irrelevance of everything that is not Alexandre.

It is a pity that Polunin could not have been a little relaxed in the role: but, as I say, his opaque hauteur is rather the point. And Dosch is great.

• Released on 5 February on Curzon Home Cinema.

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Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Simple Passion review – sensitive French study of erotic obsession | Film

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