“The bourgeois and the prole. Is that your kick?” rasps cuckolded French patriarch Samuel (Yvan Attal) to his wife after she’s pulled a Lady Chatterley and ditched him for the contractor working at the couple’s home. It certainly seems to be director Catherine Corsini’s thing, as she gets off staging grindingly intense fuck-fests between sheltered housewife Suzanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) and burly laborer Ivan (Sergi López) or shooting the pair peacefully lolling against a lush Spanish countryside, apparently the natural setting for a romance as perfect as theirs.
This alternation between frenzy and calm is the key to Corsini’s aesthetic, a strategy the director employs in order to both introduce a modest tension into her otherwise tired material and to emphasize the two aspects of the central romance (the physical and the emotional/spiritual). Mixing carefully composed medium and long shots, often filmed with stationary camera and occasionally punctuated by fades to black, with closer, more frenzied “uncomposed” views, Corsini unbalances her familiar narrative of sexual self-discovery just enough to revitalize the familiar, even if her too-exact framings sometimes tread dangerously close to a round of self-conscious aestheticization.
Still something is needed because, despite Thomas’s ability to suggest yearning and a touch of manic frenzy behind a mostly masklike exterior, this story is as old as the hills—or at least Ibsen and Lawrence. But while the wife escaping from her gilded cage has long been a fruitful source of material because it allows the artist to analyze a precise set of social circumstances that lead to a woman’s entrapment, Corsini seems singularly uninterested in this type of nuanced investigation. Instead, she keeps the setup as simple as possible: Dissatisfied housewife who has vague plans of returning to the work she abandoned years earlier when she had children finds renewed sense of life through extra-marital romance. When her husband finds out, he’s determined to do anything to stop her, to maintain his possession. “You’re my wife,” he tells her. “You owe me.” And so Samuel freezes her assets and uses his influence to prevent Ivan from getting work, thus cementing his status as a one-note villain and limiting the film’s insights into its heroine’s situation to the most obvious woman-as-man’s-property platitudes.
To Corsini’s credit, she follows Lawrence’s example by exploring the practical consequences of a wife abandoning her wealthy spouse for a man with little money, albeit with dispiritingly predictable results. As the song says, “Romance without finance is a nuisance.” Thus, in a half-turn toward crime drama that seems three-quarters implausible and most certainly strikes the wrong tone, Suzanne is reduced to robbing valuables from her own home and using Ivan’s underworld connections to pawn them off. Not surprisingly, things don’t go exactly as planned and in a scene of genuinely horrifying violence, Suzanne is forced to make a brief return to her husband’s bed which Corsini films by focusing on Thomas’s nauseated face while Attal’s body pounds away at her with mounting brutality.
But even though this one-sided act of intercourse contrasts tellingly with Suzanne’s impassioned extramarital trysts, there’s still little to suggest any real sympathy between the embattled housewife and Yvan in their life outside of the bedroom. Although they both come from humble backgrounds and are both foreigners in France (she’s English, he’s Spanish), there’s never a sense that the two have anything in common. In fact, after an early relation of their respective backstories, we never see them in genuine conversation. So when they unite for a final desperate embrace before their inevitable separation, it’s hard to view this as the culmination of a great love that Corsini’s romanticist orientation seems to demand. One senses that after the excitement wears off and Suzanne has plenty of time to reflect on her decisions, the only thing she’ll really miss is the sex.