One can’t help but wonder whether Simple Passion is meant to be set in the modern world. It feels like the sort of film that would have been made in America or Britain during the 1970s. Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) immediately came to mind as an example of a relationship drama that dealt with the conflict between the growing feminist movement and the desire of some women to occasionally return to the traditional roles that women have been forced to occupy. Of course, the situation in France may be very different, but the conversations that are being had here don’t feel attuned to the contemporary, post-#MeToo world that we live in. It feels as though you are seeing something that isn’t breaking any new ground for a genre that needs to grow and evolve, along with rapidly changing social mores. Almost nothing about this film feels authentic or true and you end up wondering whether the director has gone too far in trying to emulate those earlier entries in the genre. This lack of authenticity leaves you feeling disconnected from the story at hand.
This is a French relationship drama, so it concerns sexy, financially independent Hélène (Laetitia Dosch) who desires excitement and danger in her life. She is bored with her stable career as a lecturer on classical literature and has entered into a long term affair with Alexandre (Sergei Polunin). He is a married Russian diplomat who demands complete control over their affair and frequently leaves Hélène feeling lonely and disappointed. Their relationship slowly breaks down, as his interest in her wanes and she becomes increasingly clingy. She experiences a meltdown when he does not visit her for several months, she begins to question her ability to continue writing her thesis and wonders whether she is fit to raise her son.
Simple Passion isn’t doing or saying anything new when it comes to telling this story and it willingly indulges in clichés without having enough style or verve to get away with it. The scenes where Hélène tries to deal with the sadness that she feels when Alexandre is away, should have been illuminating. She spends some time with a friend of hers and the two talk about her affair, before making shallow observations about what it is like to be engaged in a torrid love affair. Her friend refers to feminists as though the thought of sexual liberation had been foreign to her until now.
We get all of the clichés about Hélène wanting the excitement of a dangerous affair, the comfort of being a devoted mother and the masochistic pleasure that comes with suffering when Alexandre callously leaves her without warning. One cliché that director Danielle Arbid does manage to avoid is giving us some obvious Freudian diagnosis for why she sought out this obviously unfulfilling affair. We don’t get flashbacks in which her overbearing father alternates between berating her and being affectionate towards her or a dream sequence in which she is overwhelmed by disturbing phallic imagery. You might be tempted to call this refreshing, but it cannot be said that Arbid is able to present anything nourishing in place of this rote explanation for Hélène’s struggles.
Arbid also makes safe, uninspiring choices when it comes to her use of pop songs. Occasionally montages will come to represent a Lana Del Rey music video as Hélène photogenically suffers in the middle of beautiful locations while some European pop star breathily moans about the beauty of being in pain. It verges on glamorising depression and suffering and it stops feeling cinematic during these montages. Arbid takes on juvenile sensibilities that make it difficult to take this in with a straight face.
Our protagonist is not an unlikeable woman, even though she is a neglectful mother who almost kills her son at one point. Her basic problem is that she simply uninteresting. Dosch’s performance leaves little impact as she often appears too gentle and nervous to play a character who is so willingly self destructive. In scenes which would have served as a showcase for other actresses to display their technical skill or ability to slowly reveal emotions, she comes across as emotionally inert.
The magic of a relationship drama like this should be in the small details and we should be gripped during sequences in which she invests a whole day in purchasing clothing for her midday rendezvous with her lover. We don’t see the flare of erotic anticipation in her eyes or the knowingly pathetic quality of a person who is hopelessly addicted to something or someone. She’s just a nice, ordinary girl and an erotic drama needs someone who is more psychologically complicated to sustain interest. Give me Fanny Ardant in The Woman Next Door (1981) any day. I prefer my protagonists when they are thrilled by the idea of breaking up a happy family, angering their lover and eventually shooting them dead.
Arbid sets high standards for herself when she has our protagonist watch Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959) within the first ten minutes of the film. Unfortunately we never see anything as sensual as the sequence where Emmanuelle River rakes her nails down Eiji Okada’s back. Versus Productions have advertised this as a ‘steamy’ piece of entertainment that will get you hot and bothered but the moments of physical intimacy left me feeling uncomfortable. Maybe it was just prudishness, but all of the close-ups of the moles on the lovers’ bottoms are not as titillating as the director seems to think. There is so much sex that it lost any sense of being shocking or illicit and the frankness with which nudity is presented was disconcerting. This won’t satisfy the people who want some high class, well shot pornography and arthouse purists might be turned off by the fact that there is nothing freaky or experimental about what Alexandre and Hélène do. It’s just fairly vanilla intercourse which forces you to look at parts of bodies that would be best left uninspected.
Simple Passion became available on Curzon Home Cinema (UK) from 5 February 2021.