REVIEW: Pornography! Sex! Perversion! Fonteyne's "Affair" of . . . Intimacy

by Stan Schwartz

"An Affair of Love" is the English title that has been given to Belgian director Frederic Fonteyne's excellent film, "Une Liaison Pornographique." Whatever you call it, this astutely-observed character study is hardly pornographic -- as used in the original French title, the term is strictly ironic, and the film's overall quality is, if anything, resigned and melancholic.

The film's story couldn't be simpler. Two upper-middle class, articulate Parisians, referred to only as Him and Her, meet in a cafe when He answers Her personal ad in which she seeks an anonymous sexual encounter revolving around some specific, but unnamed kinky fantasy. An on-going affair ensues, which we see in a series of flashbacks as told by both parties separately to an off-screen interviewer. Tellingly, the lovers insist on maintaining a requisite anonymity with each other, and they likewise limit the geography of their affair to the confines of a cafe, a hotel and the small stretch of sidewalk that connects the two.

At first, we are not allowed to see what goes on in the bedroom. Only when the couple graduates from the particular fantasy which brought them together to a broader (and presumably more traditional) sexual repertoire do we move behind the red door. And what do we see? Surprise, the lovers are beginning to feel the first tentative stirrings of true feelings for each other. And equally unsurprising, it's downhill from there. That is not what either party had bargained for. More to the point, they don't seem emotionally capable of anything more.

"Affair" is not terribly romantic, nor particularly erotic. What it is, however, is extremely intelligent, adult, honest and unsentimental in its depiction of that rocky terrain where love and sex intersect. But "intersect" is by no means the same as "happily mesh," and that's what will have sentimentalists out there squirming in their seats. The fact is, despite their outer appearance of considerable charm, good looks and self-assurance, these characters are benignly neurotic if not out-and-out narcissistic in ways that are familiar and modern.

They initially enter the affair to satisfy their own needs only, and their absolute insistence on anonymity within a radically limited area imposes an artificiality on the proceedings. These are lovers who want love in a safe and controlled environment, where nothing messy or unexpected happens, where ordinary, outside life doesn't impinge, where their actions have little risk of true consequence. Of course, that's not how real life or love works, and the romance that necessarily ensues can best be described as "virtual." In its external details, it certainly looks like the genuine article, but without any mutual vulnerability -- not to mention risk of pain -- true emotional intimacy is pretty much an impossibility. And to think otherwise is fooling yourself -- which is just what these characters do. No wonder they freak out when genuine feelings inevitably start to crop up.

Mind you, the lovers' purely physical passion is anything but virtual. The sex is great. Still, one could argue that the heightened physical passion is a function of the artificiality of the set-up itself. That's one of the film's more intriguing and accurately observed ironies: the notion that an existential moment of pure eroticism tends to be intensified when it takes place outside standard parameters of history, causality and hence, responsibility. (Where would the one-night stand -- not to mention the appeal of anonymous sex clubs -- be without that all-too human phenomenon?)

Screenwriter Philippe Blasband, himself an established novelist, playwright and director, charts the incremental shifts of the love affair with infinite subtlety, care and truthfulness. But let's face it, such an ambitious project would be disastrous without anything less than impeccable performances from the actors. Happily, Nathalie Baye and Sergi Lopez are stunning, and their chemistry is lovely to watch. Ms. Baye, one of France's greatest actresses, is luminous, sexy and finally heart-breaking as a seemingly liberated but ultimately self-deluded modern woman who, on one hand, repeatedly turns down her lover's offer to drive her home, and on the other hand, makes a full-blown declaration of love to a man who is ostensibly a stranger. To say that Mr. Lopez ("Western") holds his own is high praise indeed. Just watch his look of bewilderment, pleasure and panic all jumbled together when Ms. Baye makes her declaration.

Ultimately, "Affair" is about matters of revealing or masking oneself, and Fonteyne makes insightful use of several parallel metaphors for artificiality. Note, for example, the hyper-saturated reds and blues of the hotel's interiors -- the lover's hermetically sealed virtual world -- contrasted with the cool, realistic colors of the real-world exteriors. Note, too, the theatrical-looking wig Ms. Baye sports when she is "revealing" herself to her interviewer. Finally, consider that the habitual reliance on any sexual fantasy with specific, assigned roles -- precisely what brings our anti-heroes together -- is itself a kind of play acting designed to keep at bay true and potentially painful emotions.

In an ideal world, there's no reason why these two immensely attractive, intelligent people shouldn't be able to make a go of it outside their self-imposed boundaries. But they can't quite manage it; the prospect is somehow too frightening for them. The film's profound poignancy resides in just how familiar and human the lovers' stalemate is.

[Stan Schwartz is a freelance journalist based in New York who has written for The New York Times, Time Out New York, RES Magazine and FILMMAKER Magazine.]