Une liaison pornographique

(A Pornographic Affair/An Affair of Love, France - 1999)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Nathalie Baye, Sergi Lopez, Jacques Viala
Genre: Drama/Romance
Director: Frederic Fonteyne
Screenplay: Philippe Blasband
Cinematography: Virginie Saint-Martin
Composer: Andre Dziezuk, Marc Mergen, Jeannot Sanavia
Runtime: 80 minutes

"People have fantasies, but they often remain fantasies. Like, I don't know, many women have gang bang fantasies. But no one wants to be raped by a half dozen fat truckers. A fantasy like that stays a fantasy. This was different. It was a fantasy that I wanted to carry out, that I needed to carry out," - Her

The minimalist film plays out through interviews of "him" (Sergi Lopez) and "her" (Nathalie Baye) which are intercut and quickly spawn flashbacks. The interviews are conducted a while after the affair has ended by an unseen psychiatrist type (Jacques Viala). This interviewer asks both parties the same questions, and doesn't really interfere when the answers don't coincide. And they often don't. Even the way they came together clashes, with the woman claiming they met over the internet and the man claiming he found her ad in a porno mag he buys from time to time because "there are a lot of…stories or articles…on my tastes." Both of the former lovers are trying to answer the questions honestly and thoughtfully, but certain incidents stood out to them while others didn't. Sometimes the man just makes the logical guess, "It had to be better than the first time. Experience, see, but also not as good. It wasn't so new."

Two bigger reasons for the differences in their stories are they aren't exactly sure why they did certain things and how much they want to reveal. It's hard enough to understand your own fantasies much less convey their appeal to someone else. For this reason, director Frederic Fonteyne has wisely chosen to keep the sexual fantasy they live out a secret. This was something that Luis Bunuel understood, that these kind of things aren't based on logic and the only meaning and appeal they hold is to the person(s) they belong to. Both directors could get away with this tactic because their film was about the character(s) rather than the specific, and they were able to convey the importance of the unspecified to the character(s).

The magic of the relationship is quite simply that each actually found someone that shared their fantasy. The woman had never been so lucky in her first 50 or so years on the planet, and realized she never wound if she didn't go out of her way to make it happen. She tells a funny story about being 18-20 and finding an Italian man she figured would satisfy her fantasy of sleeping with a hairy man. "I wondered what it would be like, if it would tickle or not. Then, one night we started doing it and I saw he had no hair! Not on his legs and chest anyway. I felt I'd been had! I couldn't do it. It was over." But this seems to just be a segue to slyly finding out if her would be partner is hairy.

Une liaison pornographic was distributed in the US under the generic title An Affair of Love by Fine Line Features, who have handled a few other recent top notch sexually oriented films like Bruno Barretto's Carried Away and David Cronenberg's Crash. While defenders of this change claim it's a more fitting title, it was changed because people might be afraid to see a "pornographic" movie. I can't believe that in 2002, people still haven't realized that you can make a film about pornography without it being pornographic. And shouldn't it be obvious by now that that nothing close to pornographic could get an R rating? Hell, even a movie like Wayne Wang's The Center of the World couldn't get an R rating when it basically just showed topless dancing. Tease sexual encounters were simply the backdrop for an honest and perceptive study of the relationship between a rich computer dork and a stripper (that aspired to make her living from drumming) who shared the traits of despising their jobs and only being able to succeed on their own terms, but were divided by money, power, control, and her rules and definition of her self/job. I found this to be one of 2001's best in spite of getting almost universally horrible reviews (even more ridiculous in a world where one-dimensional garbage like Magnolia supposedly says something profound, and that's not even getting into the fact that it says everything it has to say before it introduces its characters and then goes on for another 3 hours to say the same thing twice), but also bring it up because the thrust of the narrative was also about whether they'd love one another rather than sex.

An Affair of Love makes sense on the surface (well, if we look past it being poor English) because we see their love develop rather than anything pornographic. While the key scene in the film is the only sex scene, it's begins the attempted transition from fantasy to love as they have sex "normally." It's one of the greatest pure sex scenes. Rather than rolling around holding each other like a couple of hot oil wrestlers minus the heat and oil, it shows human beings as they are with a mix of feelings and emotions including vulnerability, compassion, humor, insecurity, playfulness, and passion. Even so, it's true that people who go to the movie only for the sex will be sorely disappointed, and people who avoid it because of the sex will miss something they might find enriching. That said, calling it An Affair of Love totally misses the point of the film.

"In fact, we should have met in a hotel room and never speak, even outside. But there we were…We were so comfortable together. I felt I'd known him forever." As the film develops the "love", it explores how their relationship is different because sex is out of the way. In that regard, they have a lot of freedom and are spared a good deal of apprehension. They could be honest with each other because there was no need to lie to get the other in the sack.

In fantasy lies protection. The pornographic affair was totally impersonal role-playing. They had to put barriers and blocks on everything of relevance to love. It wasn't something they discussed, it's just they knew for their fantasy to succeed they'd have to steer clear of everything relating to their normal life from their name to their profession. What they didn't expect is that the person would be more than just their match sexually. Had they known, they may not have embarked on the pornographic affair, but having already gone so far down that road it was not easy to turn back.

They didn't have to worry about communication initially because their encounters were pretty much predetermined. Once they left that cushion, they just don't know what to say. The lines between anonymous sex and anonymous love were blurred to the point that they could no longer decide on their set of unwritten rules. Their indirect and/or unclear brief sentences and indecisive half sentences jeopardized their relationship, as did all their guesswork about what's going through the other's head. They doubted themselves and the strength of their bond to the point they imagined the other was trying to say they want to break up.

When the parameters change, everything changes. They became human beings, self-conscious and uncomfortable with themselves. They wondered about the other person, what were they thinking and are they always like this? They started to have silly little arguments.

Him: Parking was tough.
Her: I see.
Him: You see what?
Her: I only said, "I see."
Him: Only, "I see"?
Her: I hate repetition
Him: Ah.
Her: I talk a lot, but I say things when I think them. At least it's clear.
Him: Ah.
Her: Ah?
Him: More repetition.

As you probably guessed by now, the communication between the two is really bad. When the woman wants to know something, she tries to get the information out in the open without the man catching on that the question relates to their relationship. "Ever declared your love?…You know, telling someone, a woman for instance, that you love her and want to live with her?" When the man wants to do something, he reaches for an excuse to make it necessary and/or appealing. "Is the metro still running?…I could give you a lift." The difference between the two is the woman will sometimes take a risk. The man is afraid of the possible repercussions, but more that the better she knows about him the less she'll like him.

To me, the biggest difference between the acting in French films and Hollywood films is the French films want real people while the American ones want larger than life heroes. Nathalie Baye & Sergi Lopez have great chemistry together and give wonderful mature performances. They are totally believable in their roles. They show the positive aspects of their interaction you'd expect, but also the apprehension, uneasiness, uncertainty, and lack of confidence. The script doesn't have to incorporate cliched comical situations to try to give the film balance because the performers are willing, able, and unafraid of looking awkward and goofy throughout the regular course of the relationship. While the film is heavy on dialogue, what makes the performances great is how so many feelings and emotions are subtly incorporated into the scenarios. Even though there's "no action", to just read their lines would give you little idea of what the film was actually about.

If there's any logic behind the title, it's that the woman later suggests that sex is always an act of love. "Who the hell cares what it (their fantasy) was! It could be anything yet it was always the same thing. It was an act of love. Even if it was special, even if people don't understand, even if they find it sick, even if it was purely sexual at first, that's what it was all the same, an act of love. That's the important part." Maybe the opposite is true though, love (not the kind you have for your grandmother obviously) is always in some way a fantasy because you either don't see the flaws in your lover or choose to let the positive aspects overshadow them? This film isn't about force feeding answers, it allows you to define the terms and analyze the situations on you own. While the characters and problems become clearer, the answers become harder to come by because more information simply means more to contemplate. It's by no means hard to understand what happens to them, but that's only because we get both perspectives simultaneously while they only have their own.

The film doesn't moralize. It shows a pornographic affair that doesn't work, but doesn't tell you how terrible it was that they did such a thing or that no such affair could work. Actually, it could be argued that it shows you why it could have worked if things hadn't gone wrong in certain spots. I'd go more along the lines of would have lasted longer, but there were enough positives to their relationship that it's possible they could have overcome their initial problems if they stayed together long enough.

The reason the original title is right is the relationship fails because they couldn't make the transition from sex to love. They tried sex, and it was great. When their fantasy was fulfilled, they tried love, but it was compromised from the beginning. While they did things that lovers would do like go out to eat and converse, what they then had was an anonymous relationship that served a different purpose. It was a deep emotional bond, but still purely rooted in the fantasy. They were kind of Rene Gallimards, believing exactly what they wanted to about their mate because it suited their need. Where they differed is instead of one playing a role and the other believing it, they were both playing a role and had a special place in their heart for the other for their willingness to do what no one else had done for them. Nonetheless, they were able to delude themselves into thinking their current partner was their perfect match because they wouldn't let any information into their skull (don't tell me someone is going to be scared off by an annual at most bout with hay fever) that could prove otherwise. How can it be called love when they didn't know their "lover's" name, likes, dislikes, and so on and so forth? Whatever fantasy they played out in the hotel room, the idea that this was "an affair of love" is the biggest fantasy surrounding the film.

"In movies, people climax together, more or less. You know, sex in movies is either hell or heaven but never between the two. In life it's often between the two." This is a film that disdains the cliched crap that runs amuck in theatres everywhere, but more the general misconception that everyone and everything fits into neat little categories. It intends to make different, thoughtful, perceptive, and worthwhile observations on human beings and their relationships, as well as occasionally pointing out the unreality that is commonly passed off as "the way things are."

"I'm too optimistic sometimes. Things always work out in the end. I believe that. But it's not true. Not always." This should go without saying, but I appreciate this film for going all the way. Even though you are told at the very beginning that the affair is over and they've gone their separate ways, there is just so much tidy, sentimental, happy dreck out there these days. In actuality, everyone knows that most relationships don't work out, yet in movies I still need to see the credits roll before I can be relieved that we haven't once again been reassured that it all works out and everyone lives happily ever after. This, of course, is not to say that every happy ending is bad, but that the film should not compromise its premise because everyone supposedly wants to go home happy.


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