There's been a lot of excited chatter about the return of the erotic drama to Hollywood: the Adrian Lyne/Ben Affleck collaboration Deep Water is set for release in late summer, by which time we humans will have ideally reverted to having actual sex, rather than making do with warmly affectionate elbow bumps. Spying a gap in the market - or simply carrying on regardless - the French film industry this week offers up a prime thirst trap in Passion Simple, writer-director Danielle Arbid's adaptation of an Annie Ernaux novel, originally set to premiere at last year's cancelled Cannes. Tongues would have been set wagging there, one suspects. Not five minutes into Arbid's film, our Parisian heroine Hélène (Laetitia Dosch, breakout star of 2017's Jeune Femme), an English literature lecturer and single mother, can be witnessed having it enthusiastically away with her new lover Alexandre, a tattooed and bestubbled Russian security worker; in something of a Breillat-like coup de casting, he's played by self-styled bad boy of ballet Sergei Polunin, subject of the 2016 documentary Dancer. Plainly, Alexandre makes Hélène's heart skip beats and puts butterflies in her stomach, but to any other onlooker, he's likely to raise multiple red flags. For starters, he has no time for pillow talk - or, indeed, talk at all, preferring a knock-and-enter approach when next he shows up on her doorstep to take her unceremoniously over the breakfast table. Twenty minutes into the film, we learn he has a wife to which he skulks back after every tryst; and the title may be the biggest red flag of all, speaking to both the one-way nature of this relationship (passion simple as in billet simple, presumably), and our heroine's tendency to simplify her interactions with this new beau. One weird side effect: a woman schooled in feminist poetry suddenly finds herself drawn to romantic fiction and horoscopes. And Dosch's dreamy screen persona raises questions of its own. Is Hélène in danger of misreading a fling as a viable future? And if so, can she save herself before she gets properly crushed?
Largely eschewing melodrama, what Ernaux and Arbid are doing here is attempting to feel out and intellectualise a very ordinary, everyday process: the nervy circling that ensues either side of our initial pangs and spasms of lust. (It was a smart move to cast Polunin as the man leading our heroine an only sporadically merry dance.) Arbid's gamble is whether this agonising doubt can in itself be enough to sustain a 100-minute movie; that it will demonstrate you don't need knives, icepicks or imperilled bunny rabbits to make a potboiler of this kind. For much of Passion Simple, we're merely watching a grown woman, with adult responsibilities, take her eye off the ball on account of an unworthy male. (As I'm led to believe, this happens.) As a guiding principle, it generates a fair bit of downtime - much waiting around, a lot of anxious checking of phones for unsent love-missives - during which you may start to become aware this notional exercise in erotic realism is at least a little glossy. It's very white, très haut-bourgeois, unmistakably Parisian, with a heroine who moves in circles where she's bound to meet someone from the Russian Embassy sooner or later, and whose admirable wardrobe appears capable of covering any level of emotional dishevelment. Though it deals with some very Breillatesque power games (and tips its hand as such via a couple of especially knowing casting choices), Arbid's film doesn't ever work up the same edge. There are trowelled-on pop songs, and when it breaches the thorny subject of #MeToo - and with it the idea that even feminists have to submit whenever they fall in love - it does so in one of those aspirational bistros that have served as ground zero for so much French cinema (and cultural discourse).
The leads display an easy physical charisma, and the sex scenes are laudably frank, with none of those discreetly placed bedsheets that have been the bane of the American erotic thriller; Arbid has instilled her performers with the confidence that they'll look good in the sack, whatever happens outside of it. The talking point, I suspect, will be whether it's not just Hélène who's trying to force a relationship where there isn't one. As a character, Alexandre is sketchy at best: Polunin has neither the chops nor the opportunity to project charm, so falls back on flaunting his abs and a vaguely vulpine intensity. Watching his snout flaring over the chain on Hélène's front door, you realise here is one of the few performers who could convincingly dance Peter and the wolf. (Ah, the duality of Man!) Clearly Alexandre isn't the man - nor the prospect - Hélène thinks, which is the point of the movie, but also an inbuilt liability. Some viewers will be all too aware they could fall for this type, but others will see from the off that he's a nonstarter, and begin to question why the heroine is wasting her time and ours so. (It would have made for a potent date movie, had the cinemas been open: you'd have no idea how your companion would react to it, and how you react to it is bound to reveal something intimate about yourself.) My own feeling was that Arbid is as close to her heroine as Breillat was to the Isabelle Huppert character in the openly autobiographical Abuse of Weakness; the question that prompts is whether she's there out of empathy or sympathy, whether she's working through something in her own psyche, or simply walking a mile in Hélène's stylish heels. Either way, it allows Dosch to consolidate the kooky promise of Jeune Femme: here is a properly messy woman, someone surely old enough to know better, but who - for whatever reason - just can't help herself. Again: there will be overthinkers looking on who recognise elements of the character's obsessive, self-destructive behaviour; there will also be wise elders who spend the entire 99 minutes wanting to shake Hélène by the shoulders while telling her to snap out of it. But there's a reason it's called amour fou.
Passion Simple will be available to stream on Friday via Curzon Home Cinema.