Try to resist the urge to yell "Focus!" during the first five minutes or so of An Affair of Love. It's been a while since a director has actively utilized such tools as focus and color to hint at deeper truths, but Frederic Fonteyne (Max and Bobo) knows what he's doing. The streets of Paris, and most of the people who inhabit them, are irrelevant to the story about to be told, and may as well fade into the blurriness in which they are first presented. If it weren't for the fact that we briefly glimpse the Eiffel Tower in the background, this could be anywhere. And the protagonists could be anybody; we don't even get to know their names.
They're simply presented to us as Her (Nathalie Baye) and Him (Sergi Lopez), both recalling a shared incident in their past, and recounting it, in different locations, to the same faceless Interviewer (Jacques Viala), with occasionally conflicting details. The anonymous trappings are similar to those of Neil LaBute's films, which in turn borrowed them from the stage, and the effect is similar, forcing us to judge people by their actions in the present, as well as keeping us from becoming detached because we can't relate. By boiling the characters down to the most basic emotions and eliminating lifestyle-specific idiosyncrasies, we can enter the world of the story with ease.
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If you're not a fan of LaBute, writer-director of In the Company of Men, don't panic: These characters are a lot nicer to one another than his manipulative predators tend to be. In fact, the story arc is almost LaBute in reverse: Characters seeking a superficial relationship inadvertently make a deeper connection, then worry whether that's going to hurt the other person. "It was a pornographic affair...We were just there for sex," says the woman, to start us off (in fact, the film's French title is Une Liaison Pornographique, presumably altered so the raincoat crowd wouldn't get the wrong idea), as she recounts the story of how, finding herself single for quite some time, she finally decided to place a personal ad for a man to help fulfill her long-time fantasy. What that fantasy is, exactly, we never know; again, it's almost beside the point. The man, who has seen the ad in a magazine he claims to read because it has good articles, is more nervous than his date, but he is nonetheless willing to give it a go. The fantasy is fulfilled behind closed doors in a bright red hotel (eerily reminiscent of Twin Peaks or Lost Highway), and the two agree to meet again the following week for another go-around.
The idea behind the arrangement is that neither one is to learn anything personal about the other, so that the entire relationship can be based simply on sex (sounds very much like a remake of Last Tango in Paris). But as much as they (and many of us in the real world) would like to believe such a thing is possible, the reality is trickier. He invites her to dinner. They enjoy it more than they have any other date, because the awkward sex thing is already out of the way. Then she wants to make love (defined here as regular old horizontal sex, not necessarily an act of true love), and for the first time we get to watch. "Sex in movies is either hell or heaven, but never between the two," she says, making the point that real-life sex is usually more complicated. But this time it's pure heaven. That the act takes place in a blue room is also no accident; up until now, we had assumed the whole place was a bright, lusty red. Like the relationship itself, there turns out to be more to the hotel than meets the eye.
An Affair of Love
But it would be too easy for Her and Him to fall into one another's arms forever just yet. Complications ensue, many of them emotional, but a strange old couple also shows up, for contrast: lifelong partners who are utterly dependent upon one another, yet cannot stand to be in the same room. The tension builds: Is any kind of emotional investment too much? There's a heart-stopping moment of tension after She and He have suggested they may never meet again, when She walks into their usual cafe, and it looks as though She might miss Him, seated in a different chair than usual. Even though we know nothing about the background of either character, we have become invested in their relationship and understand how high the stakes must be for them.
Of course, the scenes in the present do depict them as separate, but one never knows; you want to believe that perhaps they'll turn out to have been interviewed in the same house--one they were married in, perhaps? And would such an ending ruin the purity of the anonymous affair, or vindicate it somehow? That the film encourages us to think about such things, without forcing the (very minimalist) score or dramatic arc to dictate our conclusions is what makes the movie stand out, and ultimately makes it worthy of comparison to the darker works of LaBute, who uses slightly different means to the same end.