The set-up is a classic one: two strangers, thrown together by circumstance, while away the time chatting about love against the stunning backdrop of the French countryside. Not a bad way to spend a vacation, and certainly not a bad way to spend two hours of a movie. But director Emmanual Mouret’s winsome “Love Affairs” (also known as “The Things We Say, the Things We Do,” a wordier way into the film’s tone) finds a clever way to spin off a walking-and-talking conceit into something more full-bodied, using its central couple (the appealing Camélia Jordana and Niels Schneider) as the entry point into a series of interconnected stories about the messiness of love.
The film comes across as a more serious “Love Actually” and a much better variation on “Valentine’s Day” or “New Year’s Eve.” Mouret anchors his romantic dramedy in the growing bond between Daphne (Jordana) and Maxime (Schneider), as they get to know each other by sharing their own past tales of romance gone awry. Mouret doesn’t reveal his interconnected narrative until well into the film’s first act, but clocking in at over 120 story-packed minutes, the filmmaker still doesn’t waste any time, kicking off the film just as the pair meet for the first time.
The opening credits haven’t even finished before the general premise is laid out: Daphne, pregnant with her boyfriend François‘s baby, must unexpectedly host his broken-hearted cousin Maxime at the couple’s country home, all while François has been called back to the city on an emergency. If that sounds like a lot of plot to digest, sit tight, because “Love Affairs” is just getting started, and will spend the next two hours rolling out years’ worth of romantic entanglements and an expanding cast of characters who could also easily host their own individual features.
A would-be novelist, Maxime wants “to tell stories about feelings,” and that’s certainly convenient, because Daphne “loves other people’s love stories.” As the pair dally around the countryside, ostensibly waiting for hangdog François to return, they begin to share their own tales of romantic woe. Told mostly in flashback, Mouret dips into each story as its own narrative, with Maxime and Daphne laying out brief groundwork before “Love Affairs” zips back in time to see where it all (mostly) went so wrong.
Not as fizzy as a farce, Mouret’s film is still amusingly interested in wacky happenstance and frequent mishaps, especially as it applies to the romantic trials of Daphne and Maxime, and later François (Vincent Macaigne) and his ex-wife Louise (Émilie Dequenne), along with Maxime’s best friend Gaspard (Guillaume Gouix) and Sandra (Jenna Thiam), who tore them apart. Unspooling as their own mini-narratives within Mouret’s larger framework (often with quite clever starting points for each story), and aided by the burgeoning chemistry between Daphne and Maxime, the ambitious idea allows “Love Affairs” to interrogate a rich tapestry of emotion.
Still, the tone doesn’t always hold steady, pitching between the sexy and the silly, the philosophical and farcical with little regularity. Mouret seems to want to dig deeper into the cultural expectations and pressures that infringe on even the most modern of romances, and many of the film’s earliest conversations are centered around that very idea, eventually crumbling into more overtly funny themes as it winds on. (Maxime, in particular, is hung up on what it all means, while Daphne is less unencumbered by such ideas.)
Set mostly in its characters’ homes, there is still a great intimacy to even the film’s biggest swings (François and Louise’s knotted storyline takes some real leaps, but Mouret’s choice to keep it relatively limited to their own interactions helps it land). Mouret’s resistance to poking fun at even some of his goofiest characters is also compelling (it’s far too easy to imagine a film in which Gaspard and Sandra are portrayed simply as fools), and the filmmaker approaches all of his characters’ differing perspectives on love and sex with the same amount of respect.
They are all valid in Mouret’s eyes, and while “Love Affairs” is oriented around Daphne and Maxime’s more traditional concept of romance (and often seems entirely conceived just to throw the charming Jordana and Schneider together), there is room enough for dissent within the story, which adds nuance and heft to it. And while Mouret can’t resist the desire to tie it up into a neat little bundle, just like some of its less inventive genre peers, “Love Affairs” still manages to end in an unexpected way that feels just right — unwilling to settle on a tidy outcome, and open to the possibilities of what could happen next.
“Love Affairs” is part of the Cannes 2020 Official Selection. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.