Double fantasies

Rating: NNNProbably it was bondage. That's the best guess, anyway. Except they never took any gear into the room. So.

Rating: NNN

Probably it was bondage. That’s the best guess, anyway. Except they never took any gear into the room. So it must be something that two people can do with only two bodies and whatever they can find in a three-star Parisian hotel. Golden showers, maybe. Not likely brown showers, or rainbow. At least I hope not.

That’s the rich little nugget at the core of Frédéric Fonteyne’s Une Liaison Pornographique. It either makes the movie, or tears it apart. A man and a woman recount an affair that began in the personal ads of a porn magazine. They meet first for sex, to live out a specific, shared fantasy. Then, in the weeks that follow, they fall in love.

The film is the story of that pornographic affair, but it never tells us what the shared fantasy was. As the woman says, it was “an act of love.” That’s all. The details don’t matter. In fact, the camera stops itself at the door of their hotel room. It leaves us in the hallway, which is dressed ceiling to floor in lipstick red, while he and she do whatever it is that turns them on.

And the film carries on in the style of so many French love stories — sharp, tender and knowing. Not pornographic at all. And yet, the seed’s been planted — what were they doing in that room?

Neat trick

Working from a script by long-time collaborator Philippe Blasbard, Fonteyne has made a film that’s provocative and elegant at the same time — a neat trick, and another sign of its grace. It frames the story as anecdote, with the man and woman each retelling the tale to an unseen interviewer. It adopts a mature equanimity about people who dare to choose pleasure. It clocks in at a smart 80 minutes.

And it stars Nathalie Baye. Baye (Beau Père, La Balance) is now a woman of a certain age, and she draws on every ounce of that certainty. She carries a feminine authority through this film that comes only with age, though not always. Early on, she offers a hint at her secret desires, saying, “Many women have gangbang fantasies, but nobody wants to be raped by a half-dozen fat truckers.” Simple, plain, totally contradictory and wise to the contradiction.

Even better, Baye’s face is so alive, so expressive in the film that each close-up seems not nearly long enough.

Prodigious nipples

Unfortunately, she makes her co-star, Sergi Lopez, look like a bit of a lump in comparison. A Spanish actor with an unlikely background in acrobatics, Lopez brings none of Baye’s spark to the screen. Maybe he was cast for his prodigious nipples. There are worse things.

Une Liaison Pornographique is not quite as good as it wants to be, partly because it makes too much of its story. Moving from sex to love, instead of the reverse, isn’t the revolutionary gambit this film seems to think it is. And withholding the sex act that brought these two together sometimes feels like the equivalent of an offstage battle scene — clever narrative strategy or failure of imagination?

Une Liaison Pornographique hit the film festival circuit at the same time as Catherine Breillat’s art-raunch rave-up, which is called Romance. More wags than one suggested the two films swap titles.

But at its best, there’s a lovely pudeur to Une Liaison Pornographique. It plays like Last Tango In Paris as conceived by a poetical tea-sipper.

At one point the man describes how he saw his lover.

“At first I found her beautiful,” he says. “But then I started seeing her faults. Her beauty vanished. Her faults vanished.” This is as perfect a description of the progress of love as I’ve heard.

With its detailed performances, burnished triphop soundtrack and quiet, aching moments, this is a bit of a rainy-day, lonely-hearts movie. But that’s exactly the source of its charm.

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