TIFF ’20 — Danielle Arbid Reminds us What an Erotic Romance is Supposed to be in ‘Passion Simple’

A still from 'Passion Simple'. Sergei Polunin and Lætitia Dosch kissing through a door with a gold chain lock between them. His right hand cups her face with his hand tattoo's visible.

Based on Annie Ernaux’s novel of the same name, Passion Simple‘s central romance may be lacking in emotional intimacy, but director Danielle Arbid teaches a lesson on how to tell an erotic tale that is actually erotic, sexy, and tantalising.

Many fans of romance films have recently been ruminating on what it is missing in contemporary romances coming from Hollywood. I say to those fans who struggle with the underwhelming nature of the Fifty Shades‘ of it all, to look beyond their cinematic borders and set their sights on what the international scene is offering. In Passion Simple, the film lives up to its title and is a sensual exploration of passion, the good and the bad.

Hélène (Laetitia Dosch) is a woman who has already fallen deeply into the seemingly bottomless hole of unrequited passionate love. She is madly obsessed with Russian official Alexandre (Sergei Polunin), who is not only married but simply does not reciprocate Hélène’s deeper feelings. We first meet Hélène recounting her emotional and mental state during a sexual affair with this married man, and she attempts to put into words how helplessly enamoured she is with him. What follows is a look into her daily routine and how each day revolves around getting to the next time he sends her a booty call.

Arbid could not find a better actress than Dosch who perfectly captures the feeble nature of her character, and the simmering flames that erupt from her when she has her rendezvous with Alexandre. For him, this is a physical exchange. Perhaps something is lacking in his married life or an affair with another woman makes sex so much better. However, he is not the subject of the film, he is the object of desire. Arbid and her leading lady craft a story about that longing and passion that propels some forward into romances that ultimately do not serve them. It is in this narrative that Arbid articulates how tantalising a love like this can be, it isn’t just the sex, it’s the torturous wait, the uncertainty, the aloof partner, all of this makes Hélène’s desire for Alexandre grow more fervent each day.

As is the case for most romances, there is obviously a notable “gaze” at play, and Arbid’s film has an equal opportunity gaze in effect. The film is very much told through the eyes of a woman who is attracted to men. The tattooed Ukrainian ballet dancer turned actor is captured on film in a manner that can only be accurately expressed with “damn”. Every movement, glance, word that accompanies his presence on-screen will be met with a reactive “damn”. You can see why Hélène is so attracted to him, and stays attracted to him when expresses opinions that counter all that she is.

A still from 'Passion Simple'. Sergei Polunin kissing Lætitia Dosch's neck as he pushes her up against a wall.

On the flipside the film has a rather normalising approach to the sexual aspects of the story and how the actors are presented; nothing is gratuitous or is overly glamourized. Neither actor is propped up as a physical ideal, and the camera does not linger on their bodies as means to arouse, except for moments when we are clearly gazing at Alexandre through Hélène’s eyes. Only then are we meant to take in the imposing Russian as an object of desire. Otherwise, both he and she are just two people presented equally as objects of desire for each other.

The two’s trysts often take place in her home in the middle of the day, with the bright light of the sun shining through her large windows. The design of Hélène’s home is adorned with white and beiges that give the space a very natural and spacious feel. Arbid and cinematographer Pascale Granel ensure that the intimate scenes feel as natural as possible. Their approach is a stark contrast to the rather gritty representation of sex in American films that somehow still makes sex feel like a taboo activity of desire. Passion Simple zeroes in on how normal desire is, but also how utterly consuming it can be when left unchecked.

Arbid gives Dosch the green light to give a rather effecting and moving performance of a woman on the edge and the alienating feeling unrequited love can have. Dosch’s captivating performance gives the film the balance it needs to truly succeed. Her performance also neutralises that rather stiff performance of her screen partner, but as he doesn’t have a truly active presence in Hélène’s story his talents does not need to go beyond his natural sex appeal.

The erotic nature of the film is certainly a primary focus, however, it is clear through Arbid’s writing and directing that she wants to map out the course of Hélène’s obsession from its peak, plateau, and finally, decline. Arbid is not quick to dismiss her leading lady’s character development as it would leave the film feeling rather hollow and pointless. At times the film is darkly funny about Hélène’s unfounded hope for her future with Alexandre as she recounts her experiences to a friend. At no point do we ever forget that Hélène is person who is confronted by the complicated nature of passion, and how it can often delude someone.

Passion Simple screened at the virtual edition of Toronto international Film Festival 2020Pyramide International is handling international sales for the film

by Ferdosa Abdi

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