Judge Gary Militzer gives a heartfelt review of this French film about anonymous sex and its romantic implications.
An affair of desire. An affair of pleasure. But it's never that simple.
An Affair of Love is a fascinating little French film that probably never opened theatrically in your neck of the woods. When the movie debuted at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival, it was titled Une Liaison Pornographique, which misleadingly translates into "A Pornographic Affair," even though there is nothing remotely pornographic about this thoughtful film. Afraid of the negative connotations associated with the word "pornographic" within our sexually repressed American society, Fine Line Features promptly changed the title after they acquired the film for distribution here. Hence, we have the more Ameri-friendly title of An Affair of Love. Aah, keeping America safe through corporate marketing concerns…
Facts of the Case
A seemingly lonely, unnamed woman and a purposefully unidentified man (played by noted French actress Nathalie Baye as "She" and Spanish actor Sergi Lopez as "He," respectively) skip through the usual "getting to know you/getting to know me" romantic courtship, opting instead to engage in a purely sexual arrangement. She has a particular fantasy, and he is willing to fulfill it, with no strings attached. They meet once a week at a Paris café and have erotic sex (mostly off screen) in a nearby hotel, all the while remaining mysterious strangers to each other. They have one implicit rule: no exchanging of personal information, not even their names, age, profession, or marital status. This seems to be the perfect anonymous attachment…until they actually fall in love.
An Affair of Love works well as an astute character study chronicling the affecting toll that these anonymous characters pay for falling in love without really knowing anything truly personal about each other. What happens when people skip the normal courting rituals and instead opt for a no-strings-attached liaison, only to find that they are indeed falling in love with each other? Can a lasting romance be built from impersonally arranged, weekly one-night stands with the same person? This film directly and honestly addresses the inherent emotional difficulty in forging a human relationship founded and subsisting solely upon a purely physical act of sex.
While An Affair of Love deals with these emotionally complex sexual issues, director Frederic Fonteyne utilizes restraint, never turning the film into a glossy erotica feast of flesh best served up during a late-night Cinemax skin fest. Rather, Fonteyne delicately frames the film to allow the subtle charm of his capable leading actors to carry the production. And Nathalie Baye and Sergi Lopez skillfully rise to this occasion, flexing their thespian muscle with admirable aplomb and considerable onscreen chemistry. Their shining moments together onscreen really capture the poignant growth of these individuals, starting out as just two nervous strangers awkwardly meeting to engage in nameless, mutual passion, but then opening the door to something else more expressively substantial.
Director Fonteyne employs a nifty narrative technique that serves this material well. Rather than give the film just a standard linear plot progression, the story is instead told in flashback form. Thus, the audience learns right from the get-go whether or not these characters are in fact going to remain together as a couple or not. Unlike most Hollywood films of this sort, where the entire journey is solely about whether or not the boy and girl stay together in the end, An Affair of Love disposes of such simple concerns from the start, allowing the audience to focus on the poignant machinations of the journey itself, not just the end result. We know how things are going to turn out for these characters; the sophisticated fun comes in viewing the subsequent details of how they get from point A to point B.
Using this flashback format, both lead characters are separately questioned in the present by an off-screen interviewer. The subjective perspective of each character is discussed, and then we get to see the way these events actually unfolded, and how reality actually adhered to or differed from their respective interpretations. It's admittedly not a new narrative technique, but it is one that gives this material an added depth, without once feeling like just some stylishly self-indulgent, "he-said, she-said" theatrical gimmick. Instead, it shows how their initial fear of intimacy distorts their mutual perceptions of blossoming love for each other.
This is a New Line release, and virtually everyone knows what this statement usually entails. An Affair of Love is presented in a nice anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves the film's original 2.35:1 theatrical ratio. For pan and scan fans, a full-frame version is also included. Color resolution is rather beautiful, with naturally rendered colors and fleshtones, deep, solid black levels, and excellent shadow delineation. Overall, the picture is sharp and exhibits only occasional shimmering.
The French Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is not an aggressive mix; surround envelopment is largely subtle, which is not surprising since this is such a dialogue-driven film. What is important is that this dialogue sounds perfectly natural within the mix, giving a nice clarity to the spoken words as they mesh with the surrounding fidelity. Yes, this soundscape is a bit sonically restrained, but this lack of total sound immersion actually works in the context of this film production. Less sometimes can be more, as the old adage goes. There is also a functional Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track included for those who wish to further downsize the sonic range and focus on the intimate, talkative nature of the film. Of course, New Line has also included easy-to-read English subtitles for those not fluent in French. Overall, this is a satisfying presentation, on both the audio and visual side, from New Line.
Unfortunately, the only extras included on this DVD are the film's theatrical trailer and brief filmographies for Fonteyne, Baye, and Lopez. A commentary track is sorely missed here. Also, since the film has a trim 78-minute length, there must be plenty of deleted scenes that did not make it into the final cut. Their inclusion would have certainly made this a better overall DVD package, but not every film can get the plush Platinum Series treatment.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
An Affair of Love is by no means a perfect film. Even with a lean 78-minute running time, the film is bogged down by some dry moments and pacing issues. Many viewers will be bored by this talkative nature of the story, hoping for more overt titillation and less of the tantalizing gabfest instead in front of them. While I applaud the fact that the sexual activity was mostly veiled in a mysterious air of secrecy, as it fits the thematic tone of detached intimacy that the director was striving for, I can also acknowledge that this will potentially push away some viewers, especially those who sat through Eyes Wide Shut expecting nothing more than a Pam-and-Tommy Lee-like personal peepshow between Tom and Nicole.
Although An Affair of Love has a distinct European sensibility, it thankfully lacks the pretentious aspirations plaguing much of today's art house fare. This is a realistic story about two people who meet as strangers and remain that way, told with an elegant, refined grace. The film succeeds as a perceptive character study, demonstrating how emotional complexity can be obtained from the simplicity of a lean, well-written, two-person talkfest. This dichotomy of complexity through simplicity is a lesson that many striving filmmakers should take to heart and embrace, in this era of unnecessarily overblown, soulless cinema.
An Affair of Love is acquitted of all charges. It is not a film that will have a broad, mainstream appeal, nor is it a particularly amazing DVD presentation, but it is a smart, solid rental for fans of French cinema or those filmgoers tired of the standard Hollywood "boy meets girl and make cute" storylines. This is an "adult film" in the literal sense of the term, not the standard pornographic connotation, so the tissue and lotion is neither required nor desired here, guys. Keep that particular evidence tucked away in the nightstand drawer. Case is dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Theatrical Trailer
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