movie review by
David Ng


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An Affair of Love

French actress Nathalie Baye exudes such overpowering sexuality in An Affair of Love (French title: Une Liaison díAmour) that a simple gaze from her invites us to make love to the screen. Dressed in a plain sweater and skirt, with a scarf draped around her sinewy neck, she hardly looks the part of a sexual dreamer. Sheís in her mid-forties, fifty perhaps, with a messy mop of hair that frames her angular face. Her body, though trim, droops just a little. No great beauty, her sex appeal lies squarely in her self-confidence -- the way she walks with purpose down a busy Parisian street, one foot slightly in front of the other, head held high, but not too high; or the way she sips her cognac like a love potion to be savored sparingly. Mixing class and sensuality, Baye deserves a place next to Catherine Deneuve in the pantheon of French actresses for whom middle age has done wonders. An Affair of Love is Bayeís movie: a story of a single woman (known only as "She") who wants to enact her sexual fantasy and so places an ad in the personals. We never learn what her fantasy is; it remains a secret between her and her partner (Sergi Lopez), a younger man known only as "He," who responds to her ad and becomes her anonymous lover.

The setup echoes Last Tango in Paris, but writer Philippe Blasband and director Frederic Fonteyne strike an entirely different tone. Whereas Bertolucciís film was carnal and unflinching, An Affair of Love gently mocks us by never showing Bayeís fantasy. The movie, at first, seems to be all bookends. Only gradually do we understand that itís all about the feelings that surround sex. The filmmakers linger on the glances, the nervous laughs, and the tapping fingers. What is left unsaid resonates in our heads. The most revealing scene occurs when Lopez offers to drive Baye home. She insists on taking a taxi. He hails one almost immediately, and for a brief moment, Bayeís face registers crushed disappointment.

The original title was Une Liaison Pornographique, and itís ironic in more than one way. Thereís precious little nudity or fucking. But itís still pornographic in the emotional sense. Baye and Lopez take comfort in the mechanical nature of their comings and goings. Itís almost ritualistic. Invariably they meet in a cafť where they drink and chat a little, then retreat to their room. They always part amicably, exchanging pecks on the cheek and agreeing on the date of their next encounter. She takes the metro, he drives his car.

While these scenes on the surface feel devoid of emotion, director Fonteyne shades them with the unspoken. We watch Baye and Lopez climb the stairs to their hotel room, both of them so seized with nervous anticipation that they can barely look at each other, much less speak. The hotel is suffused in red light. They are literally entering a different realm, one filled with sexual uncertainty. When they leave, taking their own modes of transport, itís like watching them retreat back into their separate identities. These parting scenes are filmed at a distance, as if the lovers have already removed themselves from each other.

The movieís single sex scene occurs when the lovers dare each other to forgo the fantasy and to have "normal" sex. Itís one of the talkiest sex scenes in years. They negotiate their preferences (she prefers to be on top), and slowly they converse their way to orgasm. Whatís surprising is how sensual all the talking is. Itís frank and witty, unafraid to go places that may momentarily stem their lust. Itís no surprise that their hotel room is painted blue -- the blue of intellect mixed with sexual desire.

When signs of love start appearing, their hermetic existence crumbles. The movieís denouement is protracted and somewhat long-winded (we already know what happens thanks to the flashback structure), but Baye and Lopez turn it into a sad duet of missed opportunity. Watching their eyes brighten at the smallest sign of reciprocation is strangely devastating. It reduces their supposedly mature form of self-restraint into a ridiculous pretext. But there is little regret and even less self-pity. When Baye and Lopez meet for the last time, there are no tears. Itís almost a silent confrontation. They are both mature enough to live with the limits of their relationship, and An Affair of Love is smart enough not to rescue them.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]