▶︎ Simple Passion is streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.
Early on in the narrative, protagonist Hélène watches Hiroshima mon amour at the cinema with her friend Anita and scoffs at films that perpetuate male fantasies of women and affairs. She can’t stop thinking about her married lover, Alexandre. Anita responds with a significant insight that speaks to the core of Simple Passion: “From what you say, you’re in love with love itself.”
Simple Passion is an adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s 1991 book of the same name, a slim, confessional ode to a feverish experience of an all-consuming affair. What director Danielle Arbid interprets with visceral clarity is the grip of romantic obsession and the black hole desire creates; the yearning, the pleasure, the violence and vulnerability of human bodies expressing need.
Hélène is infatuated with Alexandre. There are other characters – her friend, her son Paul – but at the same time there are no other characters, because Hélène is so submerged in erotic memories that cross-fade over the present, life beyond her affair has no substance.
At times, Hélène is evocative of Kim Novak’s Madeleine in Vertigo (1958), her hair spiralled into a bun, moving through the world entranced. While Madeleine traces her insignificance into the rings of a tree stump and sleepwalks away, Hélène glides through supermarket aisles, smiling obliviously at the stacked shelves that sandwich her, dreaming of erotic release.
Laetitia Dosch performs superbly as one destabilised by love. It’s impossible not to think of her portrayal of jilted grief in Léonor Serraille’s Jeune femme (2017), her ferocious self-inflicted knock-out against the front door of her ex-partner’s home, and subsequent psychotic episode.
In the pale grey greens of the metro, Pascale Granel’s cinematography has the feel of 1980s Rohmer, with the grainy textures of 16mm and distinct hues that weave through the mise-en-scène, revealing non-verbalised connections and moods. Simple Passion echoes the fickle desire that plays out in Rohmer’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (1987), in which the object of desire also happens to be a vapid hunk named Alexandre.
Embodied by ballet dancer Sergeï Polunin, Hélène’s Alexandre is a purely physical presence. He is intense gazes, tattoos, flushed skin and wordless arrivals. He is the giant derrière of Michelangelo’s David statue in Florence that Hélène, gaping upwards, is paralysed by.
As Alexandre is presented to us as unknowable, fluctuating between cruel and cold, it is clear his character does not exist as a way to understand Hélène’s passion. Hélène is possessed by desire and the escape it facilitates from the banality of daily routine. It is fitting that Anita is played by Caroline Ducey, who starred as Marie in Romance (1999), Catherine Breillat’s explicit exploration of female desire. Alexandre’s function in Simple Passion recalls Marie’s fantasy; a man to whom she exists simply as a vessel for his desire, or more directly, his penis. Beyond Hélène’s physical connection to him, Alexandre’s appeal is vague, but as Carson McCullers writes in The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951), there is always the lover and the beloved in any relationship, and painful as it is, it’s always more desirable to be the lover, who constructs and inhabits their own fantasy world.
Arbid’s expression of this infatuation is not only through vivid sex scenes, but in the nuances of love captured in the Greek chorus of the soundtrack: Linda Vogel’s cover of Dylan’s I Want You, Leonard Cohen’s melancholia, the breathless erotica of Suicide’s Cheree, and The Flying Pickets’ Only You; the epitome of dreamy, earnest yearning. Only You is a song that unfolds with such wholehearted ardour and pent-up pining it feels exposing in a way that mirrors Hélène’s naked vulnerability. With a narrative structure that hinges on Hélène’s erratic behaviour, and editing that races when an opportunity for a rendezvous arises, Arbid shows how Hélène’s subjectivity is saturated by her physical memory and romantic intoxication.
Hélène’s statement that “I was able to approach the frontier separating me from others, to the extent of actually believing that I could sometimes cross over it” hints at the Nietzschean swirling collective consciousness that lies beneath the masks of society, threatening to melt our manners into sensual Dionysian urges. Or perhaps Hélène’s dissolving psyche and obliterating liaison is better summarised by Selima Hill’s cryptic poetry: “A really good fuck makes me feel like custard.” Simple Passion certainly feels that way.
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