They recount their impressions to the Interviewer. They met through a magazine ad, She and He. They corresponded through the Internet. He responded to her ad seeking someone to fulfil her fantasy for “a pornographic affair”. This is their first meeting in a Paris café. He’s a little reticent. She wants to know whether or not he’s hairy. (He is; he’s Spanish.) They retire to a nearby hotel room. The door of the room closes. Unseen, the affair is consummated… They continue to see one another regularly each week. They find they get along well together. Soon she suggests that they try normal sex the next time…
French films have traditionally pushed the boundaries of sex on the screen — this year we’ve witnessed the fracas over Catherine Breillat’s Romance, which was banned then un-banned in Australia.
Now comes A Pornographic Affair, which despite its title has been rated MA15+.
A Pornographic Affair isn’t pornographic, which might be a disappointment to some people. It is about the eternal struggle that goes on around sex and love. Whether or not the French have some kind of advantage over the rest of us in figuring that out is a matter of opinion. But certainly there isn’t much the woman and the man in A Pornographic Affair don’t know. They’re mature, unattached and self-confident. And the understanding is that their only shared interest will be sex.
They meet for the first time one Thursday afternoon at a mutually agreed rendezvous, a café near the hotel which she has already booked. They’re a little nervous but not uncomfortably so. After a few moments they take their first steps together.
As the story is told in retrospect, it’s never quite clear how they found each other, but apparently he answered an ad in a personal column. She was looking for a partner to share a particular sexual fantasy. He was agreeable so here they are. We don’t follow them into the room, but later when they talk about it to an unseen interviewer, their memories conflict.
So they part, having agreed to meet again the following week. Belgian filmmaker Frederic Fonteyne is interested in their anonymity, the fact that it’s just a woman and a man in a big city that happens to be Paris.
“I had a lot of questions about love, and I still do, having made the film. The film is just a film asking questions, about what could be love, what could be passion? What is it?” says Frederic Fonteyne.
But he wasn’t interested in filming explicit sex…
“I think there are enough films that show sex, it’s called porno film, and if you want to see sex, it’s very easy to see sex in those films. I try to have the sex during all the film, because sex is everywhere! I mean, it could be in a café, in the look of the actors. I mean, when you desire someone there is sex in your eyes and it is beautiful,” says Fonteyne.
The strength of A Pornographic Affair, and it’s a great strength, is the pairing of Nathalie Baye, whose distinguished career goes back 20 years to films such as The Return of Martin Guerre, and Spanish actor Sergi Lopez. Like the man and woman in the story, they didn’t meet until filming began and they got to know each other with the camera rolling…
“I really like to come from cliché and to have clichés and then to reverse them, then to play with clichés, because if you don’t take clichés at the beginning you cannot say anything,” says Frederic Fonteyn.
This isn’t the first film to reverse the conventional romantic formula. But Fonteyne and his screenwriter Philippe Blasband develop the characters of the man and woman so skillfully that it becomes a very specific, highly individual story.
“I try to say that it’s not easy to communicate but you have to! You have to try. Because one of the main clichés that is in the film is that you think when you are in love that you understand everything of the other one. And sometimes you have little love affairs on holiday and people don’t speak the same language but they really think that they can understand every little move of the face! They are sure they understand but most of the time it’s wrong. So that’s why I try to explain: just keep talking, keep trying because it’s not easy,” says Fonteyne.
In spite of its title, A Pornographic Affair isn’t a shocking or sensational film.
On the contrary, it’s essentially gentle and intelligent and that could work against it, I suppose. But it makes a change from much of the material on our screens, which is either stupid or brutal or both. You’ll wait a long time to see better acting. I recommend it.
Peter Thompson, Sunday, July 16, 2000