Pitched somewhere between the round-robin sexual odyssey of Max Ophüls's La Ronde and the trenchant erotic autopsies of Catherine Breillat, writer-director Laurent Bouhnik's Desire ends up waddling clumsily down the middle of the road. Taking a controversy-courting cue from Breillat's most uncompromising films, Bouhnik incorporates plenty of unsimulated sexual activity into Desire. The difference is that sexuality works to strip away character armor in Breillat's films, laying bare tangled skeins of defense formations and irreconcilable instinctual drives. Bouhnik, on the other hand, uses explicit content as little more than pseudo-provocation, filling his film with prurient acts meant to titillate as much as, if not more than, cast any illumination on the fractious, inconstant nature of Desire's eponymous urge.
Set in coastal Cherbourg, Desire is a far cry from Jacques Demy's candy-colored musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, concentrating as it does on anonymous domestic spaces and ubiquitous sidewalk cafés. Yoking together a disparate cross-section of Cherbourg's disaffected youth is 20-year-old Cecile (Déborah Révy), an enigmatic figure who waltzes into their lives and proceeds to upend them, acting as a sort of carnal catalyst to more-or-less repressed urges. Cecile turns it on men and women alike, an erotic Amelie who raises her skirt at the drop of a hat. (Too bad Bouhnik's notion of undercutting his sex scenes' voyeuristic appeal seems to involve them inevitably turning sour with one partner weeping piteously into a pillow.)
Desire opens with a blue-tinged prologue set in a women's shower room, the camera focused entirely on the ladies' naughty bits, as their off-screen voices give vent to various sexual grievances. Recurring throughout the film like a Greek chorus envisioned by Larry Flynt, the women are eventually revealed as a group of friends, until now peripheral to the main narrative, who are prepping themselves for an evening's orgy-for-hire. Perhaps realizing that some sociological rationale (however half-assed) might exculpate him from charges of rank exploitation, Bouhnik forcibly inserts an economic crisis as incentive for wholesale harlotry, complete with picketing workers as colorful background against which his pointlessly pensive, self-absorbed twentysomethings can preen.
Given the fact that one of them, Matt (Gowan Didi), vaguely resembles the protagonist of Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably (a vastly superior study of post-adolescent anomie), you can only hope that it will all add up to something. When that something turns out to be "female empowerment" through prostitution, you know you've been handed a leaden Zeppelin of a metaphor if ever there was one. Cecile's motivation for playing cocktease and libidinal liberator is ascribed with equal lameness to having recently lost her father. And, finally, Desire's laughably milquetoast ending involves a mutual affirmation of love against all odds. Not that Bouhnik's film has established in any significant way, other than through the specter of opportunistic infidelity, exactly what those hurdles might resemble.
IMAGE / SOUND:
Strand Releasing gives Desire a thoroughly respectable DVD transfer. The imagery and colors are vivid, with next to nothing in the way of technical objections. The French Dolby Digital track conveys the dialogue clearly (for those to whom it will matter), as well as the tasteful classical music that accompanies many of the sex scenes. The English subtitles are burned in.
By way of supplement, Strand Releasing provides two trailers: one for U.S. audiences, the other an unrated international version. Taken together, they're an object lesson in selling sex. The U.S. trailer, structured to vaguely resemble a made-for-cable erotic thriller, coyly elides the copious nudity. The unrated version amps up the sex and naughtiness.
While Desire isn't particularly satisfying, best taken as either a subpar example of parboiled erotica or one lazily sketched character study, the DVD from Strand Releasing is handsome enough.