Anaïs in Love: a charming queer comedy

Though it takes some time to find its feet, Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s debut feature grows increasingly sophisticated, not least as a gentle satire of the Parisian publishing elite.

Anaïs Demoustier in Anaïs in Love (2021)

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a debut feature film, Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s Anaïs in Love takes some time finding its feet while running through gallic clichés, but becomes more interesting and sophisticated as it unfolds. We meet Anaïs (Anaïs Demoustier) sprinting at full speed, late for an appointment with her landlady. The image of her madly racing, bags and hair flying, recurs throughout the film as her signature, suggesting disorganisation as much as youthful energy. Impulsive and accident-prone, Anaïs evokes the heroines of classic screwball comedy. The tone, however, soon switches to that of an intellectual romantic comedy, in line with Anaïs’s literary pursuits, as she is supposedly writing a thesis on 17th-century French literature and periodically asks, “Do you think I’m unable to love?”. Just as she is breaking up with her boyfriend Raoul (Christophe Montenez), refusing to have his child, she meets Daniel (Denis Podalydès), an older, married publisher who instantly takes to her. They soon end up in bed, his wife Émilie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), a successful writer, safely out of the way in their country house. So far, so French. But when Anaïs, having sub-let her flat on account of being broke, attempts to move into his elegant apartment, she finds her fascination for Émilie growing. In a scene worthy of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), she is mesmerised by a mysterious portrait of the absent woman (which manages to hide her face) and she tries her perfume and lipstick in the couple’s bathroom. The rest of the film is devoted to the two women’s mutual seduction, much to Daniel’s chagrin.

Coming after two shorts, Bourgeois-Tacquet’s first feature exhibits both the freshness and the awkwardness of a first film. There are jarring comic moments (involving abortion, for instance) and some where the humour seems forced, such as the scenes involving Anaïs’s brother or her Korean lodgers. The motif of Anaïs frantically sprinting, too, begins to tire after multiple repetitions. Yet, especially in the second half, the film skilfully navigates a delicate path between the light-hearted badinage of a set of privileged individuals and deeper passions, as in the literature that is alluded to (Madame de La Fayette and Madame de Sévigné, but also Marguerite Duras). The young director’s biography suggests a more than nodding acquaintance with the milieu she depicts, as a literature student who worked briefly in publishing. As a result, her gentle satire of the Parisian elite publishing world is nicely judged, especially Émilie’s writers’ conference in an exquisite Brittany castle where an administrator keeps erotic prints in a closet.

The pleasures of Anaïs in Love largely derive from the nuanced performances by Demoustier and Bruni Tedeschi. The latter, for once, is not required to be tearful or neurotic, and the growing attraction between her and Anaïs is convincingly handled – even if one could quibble at a couple of cliché moments, such as the two women’s encounter under an apple tree (in which Anaïs gives Émilie an apple) and the nowadays seemingly obligatory sea-shore setting for the lesbian love scene. The excellent Demoustier sustains the entire film, indeed named after her. Her choice was not accidental: Bourgeois-Tacquet had already cast her as the lead in her 2018 short Pauline asservie. (Both the short and Anaïs in Love were shown at Cannes in 2021 – quite an accolade.) Ebullient and ‘cute’ especially when seducing Daniel or Émilie, Demoustier is equally believable as an aggrieved daughter when she finds out that her mother’s lethal illness has returned. Her irrepressible energy and artless beauty underline her precise rendition of a modern young woman bent on following her own desire, straight or queer – at times to the point of insensitivity. Indeed, it’s hard to think of another actress who could have made Anais’s exasperating unreliability, egocentricity and excessive volubility forgivable, let alone endearing, as they are evidently supposed to be. Fans of Eric Rohmer may be reminded of some of the young heroines in his ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ (1980–1990) and ‘Tales of the Four Seasons’ (1990 – 1998) series, a filmic heritage also suggested by the literary references and cultured dialogue. This is marivaudage with an intellectual bent – Anaïs and Émilie share a love of Duras’s 1964 novel The Ravishing of Lol Stein – and a feminist twist: “I don’t want to meet interesting people,” Anaïs says, “I want to be interesting.” Thanks in large part to Demoustier, she is.

► Anaïs in Love is in UK cinemas now.