in ,

LFF 2023: Whatever The Nature of Love Is, It’s Not Simple

Image Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival

Perhaps no other director can claim to have truly defined a genre as much as Douglas Sirk did the melodrama. Of course it was a well established genre before then and Sirk’s films were themselves a kind of pastiche, but that in itself is an important development of the genre. Melodramas exist in themselves to be an exaggeration of a dramatic form, targeting recognizable and relatable emotions through narratives concocted specifically to wring as much human drama out of themselves as possible, telling tales of loss and longing as bittersweet and tragic as they are romantic. Endemic to the ’40s and ’50s as a feminine antidote to the bitter films noir of the time, one can still find exponents of the genre flourishing today with the likes of Todd Haynes and Xavier Dolan. This latter is especially relevant as a mentor of sorts to Monia Chokri, whose film The Nature of Love a.k.a. Simple Comme Sylvain, arrived at the BFI London Film Festival fresh from the Cannes earlier this year.

Dolan’s high-intensity family dramas are a radical modern evolution of the melodramatic form, turning their gaze on the queer dysfunctions of Quebecois households. Chokri’s acting career took off in tandem with Dolan’s starring in his films Heartbeats and Lawrence Anyways, and although her own directing career is three features deep and her voice distinctively her own, her style marks her out as an evident disciple of Dolan’s ever audacious one. She even borrows her leading man Pierre-Yves Cardinal from Dolan’s feature Tom at the Farm, playing, in this film’s title character, another rustic himbo.

Each of its titles equally fitting in their own way, The Nature of Love offers a vibrant, romantic, humane and often desperately pessimistic treatise on romantic love in all its frustrating contradictions and joys. Its heroine Sophia (Magalie Lepine-Blondeau, who starred in Chokri’s debut short a decade ago), is a philosophy professor whose lectures on the title subject act as informal chapter breaks throughout the film, presenting different takes on that elusive power. It seems if it’s films are to be believed, Quebec is absolutely teeming with incautiously horny academics.

Sophia has been partnered with Xavier (Franics-William Rheaume) for many years and though their cozy intimacy is rewarding in its own way, Sophia is feeling the lack of erotic fervor, which is exactly what she finds with Sylvain, the rugged contractor hired to renovate their lake house. Unable to resist his uncomplicated charm, Sophia jumps him and tumbles headlong into a maelstrom of excitement, sex, desire and also much heartache. The deeper she falls in with Sylvain, the harder it will be to return to her old life, and it soon becomes clear how different she and Sylvain are, underneath their immediate attraction.

Much like Last Summer, it sounds like the setup for an extremely gallic romp about a middle-aged woman’s summer of sex with a younger man but due to the intelligence of its construction, it winds up being much more than that. It’s nowhere near as subversive as that film was, it certainly gives you what you’re expecting, lots of hot sex, lots of chemistry between its leads, romantic montages of city breaks and rustic getaways, etc. However, Chokri is committed to digging deeper, and finds both satire and heartbreak in her story, following two very different people who love each other, and yet are palpably wrong for one another in a million ways that shouldn’t matter, but which we all know do. She’s an educated philosophy professor, he’s a rural handyman. Her friends and family drink expensive wine, discuss climate change and modern art, his chug beers while talking about conspiracy theories, their nails, and whether the Arabs are nice once you get to know them. The film culminates in one or two excruciating scenes of social embarrassment that could maybe have been toned down a little, but Chokri likes to indulge the viewer with humor as much as eroticism and beauty.

These scenes are among the clumsier in The Nature of Love and add up to a film where you more feel sorry for its characters than you like them, although you may still relate to them quite a bit depending on your own circumstances and circles. Thankfully both Lepine-Blondeau and Cardinal are exceptional in their roles. Their romantic (and sexual) chemistry is often intoxicating, yet what they really nail is the sense of pain and conflict within each of them. They want, desperately, to be together, but it’s going to mean big, big compromises for one or each of them and neither is sure its for the best. Lepine-Blondeau in particular is phenomenal, and in an era when the absurd puritanical conversation about sex onscreen continues, it’s invigorating to watch a film so committed to and candid about a heterosexual woman’s sexuality and the emotional complexity of sating it.

The Nature of Love benefits greatly from the talent behind the camera too. Cinematographer Andre Turpin is arguably the best director of photography ever to come out of Quebec, his sensuous, vibrant style is perfect for this film, giving it a richness and elegance that bears the weight of the knotty, intense emotions as well here as it did with his collaborations with Dolan and Denis Villeneuve. Chokri too makes an art of montage with her editor Pauline Gaillard, including playful comic touches like when Sophia is called away from one of her lectures by Sylvain blaring his horn at her bedroom window that night, or one moment that borders on parody where, in the middle of a romantic city break, she cuts to a ship in the harbor called “Life Passion”.

The Nature of Love is certainly a bit of an odd duck as far as tone goes, flitting between intense emotional sincerity and some almost sitcom level jibes about middle-class, so-called intellectuals. Not all of it works perfectly and the story is maybe on the drawn out side, but the commitment from everyone involved is so palpable that it’s hard not to be swept along. Above all, the film works best when its focused on Sophia, her desire, and her turmoil. Chokri and Lepine-Blondeau are in perfect harmony during some of these moments and they get some real fires burning.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

Leave a Reply

Film Obsessive welcomes your comments. All submissions are moderated. Replies including personal attacks, spam, and other offensive remarks will not be published. Email addresses will not be visible on published comments.

Paul Green (David zum Brunnen) during the production of Native Son in The Problem of the Hero.

Actor and EP David zum Brunnen on The Problem of the Hero

An eye peeks through a moldy mattress.

The Fifth Thoracic Vertebrae Is Gloriously Beautiful and Creepy