DIRECTOR: DANIELLE ARBID
CAST: LAETITIA DOSCH, SERGEI POLUNIN
FRANCE 2020; ENGLISH SUBTITLES; 1H 41MINS
CURZON HOME CINEMA (FROM FEBRUARY 2021)
REVIEW by KATHLEEN BONDAR
The title of this film could just as easily be swapped to Sexual Obsession. Adapted from Annie Ernaux's best-selling autofiction novel by the French Lebanese filmmaker Danielle Arbid, Simple Passion centres on Helene (Laetitia Dosch), an academic and divorced mother, who is infatuated with Alexandre (principal ballet dancer Sergei Polunin), an elusive, married diplomat at the Russian Embassy in Paris. Whilst Helene’s infatuation is heavily weighted by sexual desire, her emotional involvement runs equally deep.
However, this is an intermittent sexual relationship in which Helene is significantly more invested. Alexandre calls the shots about when to meet, while Helene occupies their time apart checking her mobile for his calls. When they are together their time is spent in sexual pleasure performed graphically for the camera. Then Alexandre goes to Russia for months on end and Helene is consumed with a longing that wreaks havoc on her ability to function. In desperation, she flies to Moscow for a few hours just to breathe the air Alexandre might inhabit.
In keeping with the autobiographical nature of Ernaux's novel, the focus of this passion is from Helene’s point of view. Helene’s mind is always on Alexandre. A quick call from him sends Helene packing her son off, to the point of borderline neglect; at work a voice message distracts her before a hall of expectant students.
Arbid translates this to screen with several devices. Helene is a constant narrator throughout the film. “Since last September I have done nothing but wait for a man: for him to call me and come to my place... Everything about him was so precious to me, his eyes, his mouth, his penis, his childhood memories, his voice…” We sit in on her therapy sessions during which she reiterates her longing.
The camera follows Helene’s gaze, and her mind’s eye, which is always directed at Alexandre. We see her wistful face, her delighted smiles, her orgasmic expressions and her despairing eyes - in stark close up.
The principal ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, as a newcomer to acting and the art of speaking parts, plays Alexandre (conveniently) without too many lines. Fortunately, this serves to convey a detachment from the relationship in juxtaposition to Laetitia Dosch’s spell-bound obsession. Polunin is also able to do what he does best, perform physically, albeit in a different vein to Swan Lake. Where the two come together (literally) as equals is the execution of sexual passion. Polunin offers full frontal and Dosch joins in every which way.
For some time, the endless sexual antics become so central to Simple Passion that the narrative seems to be going nowhere. Eventually Arbid manages to reign in before Simple Passion becomes another contender for the latest Gainsbourg/Birkin Je t’aime video and by the end of the film Helene’s passion is successfully portrayed as anything but simple.