Review: Sexual Chronicles of a French Family

Co-directors Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr do all they can to make their film seem edgy.

Sexual Chronicles of a French Family
Photo: IFC Midnight

In 1975, Jean-Luc Godard made a difficult, progressive, and rarely seen film called Numero Deux, which explores the sex lives of a working-class French family across three generations. Equal parts political and pornographic, the film is as rigorous an interrogation of sexual agency and power relations as Foucault’s seminal A History of Sexuality, the first volume of which was written just a year after Godard’s film was released in France (to a lot of confusion and disdain, as was common for his work during this period). Now, nearly four decades after Numero Deux radicalized depictions of familial sexuality and set the bar for pretty much all works about the nature of sex, we are presented with Sexual Chronicles of a French Family, which in many ways appears to be Numero Deux part two. The class has been upgraded to a comfortable middle, but the film still aspires to examine the sex lives of three generations of a French family with frankness and audacity, knocking down barriers and, it hopes, blowing our minds. Yet it could never do either: Its scope is too limited—conceptually, yes, but also intellectually and emotionally—for it to muster much of a response in us beyond basic titillation. And there are plenty of better places to go for that.

Co-directors Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr do all they can to make their film seem edgy, but the immediate and irresolvable problem with this strategy is that we can’t possibly, in 2012, be shocked by the mere sight of on-screen sex, however convincingly simulated or visually frank. Actual, honest-to-goodness pornography has an unavoidable delimiting effect on transparent depictions of any kind of sex act, reducing the visceral impact of, say, an extended sequence in which an 18-year-old boy loses his virginity to a new girlfriend, which becomes perversely boring. None of the film’s innumerable sex scenes offer much in the way of deep engagement or interest, in fact, and other than the faint hope that Sexual Chronicles would pull a Dogtooth and make its family time markedly weirder, there’s very little preventing its mercifully slender 87-minute running time from feeling like twice that.

If you’re feeling especially generous, you could read these belabored sex scenes as deliberate attempts to normalize or somehow make tedious an act we incessantly make too big a deal of, but even if you can ignore the film’s strained faux-scandal showiness, there still isn’t much of a point to this wall-to-wall fuckfest. Not that it needs one, exactly, but if base thrills are all Sexual Chronicles intends to deliver, it could have at least spared us the middling didacticism of its moral. “Being open about sex makes us happier” proves a tough line to sell when you’ve effectively made your audience tired of watching sex.

 Cast: Mathias Melloul, Valérie Maës, Stephan Hersoen, Leïla Denio, Nathan Duval, Yan Brian, Adeline Rebeillard, Grégory Annoni, Laetitia Favart  Director: Pascal Arnold, Jean-Marc Barr  Screenwriter: Pascal Arnold, Jean-Marc Barr  Distributor: IFC Midnight  Running Time: 87 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2012  Buy: Video

Calum Marsh

Calum Marsh is a critic, reporter, and essayist who specializes in art and culture. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Playboy, The New Republic, Pitchfork, and other publications.

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