After a successful virtual run in their usual November/December slot last year, I'm pleased to report that French Film Festival UK is back with another online edition to see us through until normal screenings resume later this year. As an encore performance, it makes sense this would be comprised of popular encore screenings, so fff@home kicks off this weekend with Emmanuel Mouret's critical darling, Love Affairs (Les choses qu'on dit, les choses qu'on fait). Debuting last year as part of the Official Selection at Cannes Film Festival, Love Affairs received a staggering thirteen nominations at the 46th annual César Awards, making it the most nominated film of the 2020-21 season.
I often highlight the difference between English-language titles and the original French version as much can be lost or gained (usually the former) in translation. In the case of Love Affairs, its original title, Les choses qu'on dit, les choses qu'on fait (literally 'The things we say, the things we do'), is a far more evocative description of the film's nuances and the director's original intent. Writer/director Emmanuel Mouret recorded a short intro for the festival, in which he touched upon this idea.
"Behind the irony of the title, you can probably see, the taste for contradictions which I am fond of, and which is characteristic of my films. I hope you are going to be reassured by all the contradictions of the characters in the film."
And I have to say, I'm glad I saw that introduction before the film commenced. Love Affairs manages to craft what I would call a uniquely French film, peppered with universal themes, and filtered through the lens of traditional farce. That's not to say Love Affairs is a comedy - and I've seen it wrongly categorised as a rom-com in some circles - but there's definitely a heightened sense of the interplay between relationships, fidelity, and the way people navigate though their lives and loves. It's like a snapshot of real life, brought into tight focus, and presented at an accelerated pace.
The synopsis seems quite standard on the surface - François has to rush back to Paris to cover for a sick colleague, leaving his partner Daphne, three months pregnant, to welcome his cousin, Maxime. In the four days till Francois’ return Daphne and Maxime get to know each other, sharing increasingly intimate stories that bring them closer - but it belies a film that is far more of an ensemble piece than a romantic two-hander. It's therefore no surprise Love Affairs has been nominated for César Awards in the categories of Best Actor (Niels Schneider as Maxime), Best Actress (Camélia Jordana as Daphne), Best Supporting Actor (Vincent Macaigne, who I first noticed in Olivier Assayas' Non-Fiction, as François), Best Supporting Actress (Emilie Dequenne as Louise), and Most Promising Actress (Julia Piaton as Victoire).
In fact, the entire cast do a remarkable job of making you relate to them and their stories, then drawing you into their world, so hats off to Emmanuel Mouret and casting director Constance Demontoy for their efforts. Because these aren't just the stories of Daphne and Maxime - they're the stories of everyone involved - and they demonstrate how our choices can have major implications for the others in our lives. Some of this is expressed entirely through the narrative, while other things are highlighted in conversations between characters, looking back at situations with the benefit of hindsight. In this regard, they employ a lot of philosophical debate around the nature of love and desire, with some wonderful quotes and counterpoints throughout.
In the early moments of the film, when Maxime and Daphne have just met and are starting to open up to one another, she touches on this idea of shared stories and experiences.
"I love other people's love stories. They're fascinating. They remind you of the ones you had, or didn't have."
If that's not a statement of intent for the film then I don't know what is, as it invites you to immerse yourself in these people's lives and allow it to reflect back on your own. We can all relate to those close encounters, near-misses, brief opportunities, and paths that were (or were not) taken. The fact that it's played out over two hours on-screen shouldn't negate the universal nature of it all.
Of course, life is not that neat and simple, and their discussions touch on this again, in an almost self-referential way, as they speak about temptation and desire.
Daphne: "Lots of books and films show us that we're powerless in the face of desire. It's human not to resist."
Maxime: "No, it's not human. That's just it. Being human means resisting. Books and films also show people who can resist."
Naturally this leaves you wondering how our characters are going to respond and handle their own temptation, but as this is a spoiler-free review I'm going to leave that for the film to answer. Besides, posing the question is far more interesting and important than the specific result, and that's what lies at the heart of this film. If you're going in looking for a definitive solution then you're going to be sorely disappointed. François understands this, as he confides with Maxime later in the film.
"But there isn't one right path, there are several. You can't take them all at once. And you can't look back, life goes on. When you're on one path, maybe you should follow it and not look back too much."
I've seen comments online that the film is a little long and occasionally feels like it, but this languid pacing is a hallmark of French cinema. Although much is crammed into these two hours, it's not an action-packed film; it's more like a gentle river that draws you in and pulls you along with its current. If anything, it drew me deeper as the film progressed, so when we did reach our conclusion I was almost disappointed. I could have seen this play out over a longer time, perhaps as some short-run Netflix series, but that's just me being greedy as the film and its director had obviously achieved their purpose by that time. They left me wanting more, and thinking about the issues raised long after.
If you enjoy French cinema, or you're looking for somewhere to dip your toe in (a fitting analogy considering the river comparison above), I'd highly recommend Love Affairs as part of fff@home. Not only is it a powerful film in its own right, but it's also a wonderful example of the thoughtful curation on display. I'll be watching eagerly to see how the film performs at this year's César Awards, although one stark omission from the nominations was Jenna Thiam in the role of Maxime's ex, Sandra. She had the difficult role of trying to straddle the line between beguiling and frustrating, which is so important to both her character and Maxime's story. I'll definitely be checking out more of her work - along with the rest of the cast - and if Love Affairs is indeed 'characteristic' of Emmanuel Mouret's films then I can't wait to dip further into his back catalogue as well.