Frederic Fonteyne’s An Affair of Love opens beautifully, with a shot of a crowded Paris street so out of focus that the image is pure abstraction. Pedestrians begin as enormous blobs of light that only begin to take shape as the shot is gradually inched into focus beneath the credits. It’s a unique, suggestive beginning, implying that the film will unfold slowly, bringing us eventually to a clearsighted perspective on its characters.
Sadly, the shot creates expectations that the film has no interest in fulfilling. It’s a character piece about two ciphers, people who never drop their shield of anonymity. Sergi Lopez and Nathalie Baye play "Him" and "Her," strangers who meet via a personals ad she’s placed in an adult magazine. They agree to meet weekly in a hotel to explore a (coyly unnamed) fantasy with the implicit agreement that nothing from their outside lives will impinge on the sex. Almost immediately, they develop feelings for one another, but feel so constrained by their agreement that they can’t act on the opportunity for real intimacy that has presented itself.
If the scenario sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a rethinking of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 Last Tango in Paris, in which two strangers took an apartment together for anonymous sex. There is, however, a crucial difference: most of Tango took place outside of that apartment. We lived with the characters in their real lives and saw the frustrations that fueled their leap into nameless intimacy – the recent suicide of Marlon Brando’s wife, Maria Schneider’s imminent marriage to a pompous boor. This provided the context for their days together, so that we understood their reasons, even if they did not.
Fonteyne and his scenarist Philippe Blasband make no attempt to explain anything about the characters. We learn nothing beyond what transpires in bed, where they have sworn themselves to complete anonymity. Thus there’s no sense of what drove them to seek out strangers, of the pressures in their daily lives. They remain opaque even after they begin to invest themselves emotionally. There’s no real intimacy, no indication of what they have come to mean to one another.
The film takes up after the affair has ended, with Baye and Lopez recounting the events in carefully distanced interviews that lead to flashbacks. Much is made of the differences in their recollections – he says they exchanged photos beforehand; she insists that they didn’t – but the discrepancies don’t add up to anything. We don’t get two perspectives on the events but rather a single version that’s a little hazy in the surface details.
An Affair of Love is rather chaste for a film that’s obsessively concerned with sex. The single erotic scene centers on the one time they decide to forego their fantasy in favor of an afternoon of "normal" sex. This anomalous event hastens the end of their affair by making it clear to them both that they’ve fallen in love. The audience has to take them at their word, however, since we’ve never seen what happens between them in their fantasy sessions and we have no investment in their emotional lives. They’re as affectless after that afternoon as they were before, though we’re told at length how deeply they care for one another.
To the extent that the film works at all, it’s because of Nathalie Baye. With no role to speak of, just a situation, she manages to give intimations of a life beyond what we’re allowed to witness. There’s enormous gravity in her performance (she has moved well beyond her ingenue days with Truffaut), a suggestion of real pain in her decision to throw herself into a purposefully empty relationship. She remains as beautiful as ever, but with middle age she’s taken on a calmly regal poise that pushes against the banality of the film.
Baye is strong enough in the film to make one wish for a more thorough reinvention of Last Tango in Paris. Since she is playing the Brando role of the older lover to Lopez’ brash youngster, there are untapped possibilities here for a study of an aging woman’s sexual life. It’s a great, unexamined subject, and Baye is a sufficiently fearless actress to carry it off. But An Affair of Love is far more interested in playing ironic games with its shallow conceit – the social niceties of anonymous trysting – than it is in exploring the emotional terrain it inadvertently touches on. The promise of its extraordinary opening goes unfulfilled and Baye is left stranded, a performance too strong for a film this slight to contain.