French twist

An Affair of Love fails to engage

Opens Sept. 1?
Originally titled A Pornographic Affair, Belgian filmmaker Frederick Fonteyne's film, An Affair of Love, is a melancholy, pensive French film about sex or, perhaps, a sex film about French people. The affair begins when an anonymous man, "lui" (Sergi Lopez), responds to a personal ad placed by an anonymous woman, "elle" (Nathalie Baye). Elle wishes to explore the intricacies of an erotic fantasy which, supposedly, "lui" shares. But what begins as a straight-forward sexual agreement between two anonymous adults develops, not surprisingly, into the all-too familiar confusion of sex with love — in this case, between two strangers who really don't know the first thing about one another.

As if to better stimulate our salacious, so-called minds, Fonteyne leaves out the specific details of their erotic entanglement, as well as anything so pedantic or mundane as a background for our characters. We never know what kind of lives they live outside the boundaries of their politely restrained interaction, nor what goes on behind the closed door of the hotel room up the street from the café where they meet every Thursday, she for coffee and he for cognac.

Rather than disclose the specific nature of their pornographic liaison, a series of he-said/she-said, back-and-forth interviews reveal the discrepancies between their memories of the affair. What both "he" and "she" do share, however, is a sense of loss as well as nostalgic wonder at what could have been. While he preserves plastic-wrapped mementos of their affair, she claims never to have re-enacted her fantasy with anyone else, either before or since.

However, it is not the unmentionable erotic act that the characters recall with such poignancy but their engaging in "normal" sex. To his credit, Fonteyne presents us not with lean, hard bodies having the orgasm of their lives, but two ordinary people having believable sex — as titillating as it is potentially embarrassing and as memorable as it is disappointing.

It seems that Fonteyne's minimalist film would have us see the essence of his characters and their relationship through their evolution from a purely sexual relationship to perfect love. Yet, however reticently charming his film, Fonteyne's minimalism can't conceal its easy reductionism or the plot's pitfalls.

With "him" and "her" not so much characters as symbols, the parable of Adam and Eve is bound to come up sooner or later. In one of the film's few light-hearted moments, "elle" casts Eden not as a garden of creation but someplace in the cold, northern climes: Eve falls backward in the snow, onto her naked bum, which Adam considerately rubs to a rosy pink, thereby begetting the entire human race. Perhaps this, after all, is the drama that our characters are called upon to act out week after week, as it is more a naughty joke than the moralistic tale we Americans grew up with, which would've easily explained the unraveling of their affair. The reference, however, as well as a chance run-in with an old man who claims that the couple have usurped the privacy of his room, ultimately leads to nothing. In a world without context, it would seem that there are no real consequences, either.

And when the relationship does unravel, it is hardly the tragedy that Fonteyne would have us believe it is for his characters, simply because there is nothing which might allow the audience to identify with their loss. Despite their declarations of love, neither he nor she seems devastated by the end of their affair. Whatever it was they shared, their relationship is in retrospect like some curious knick-knack, as precious as it is enigmatic, to be taken down from the mantle for their private reveries. Perhaps novice director Fonteyne will take note: No identifiable characters means no engaging conlict.