Since September, Hélène (Laetitia Dosch) tells us, she has thought about nothing but a man she can’t have. “I kept working, I went to movies, I did the shopping, I read. But everything I did seemed to be cut off from reality”. In sensual romantic drama Simple Passion, Lebanese-born director Danielle Arbid captures viscerally that peculiar detachment that comes from romantic and sexual infatuation.
Told in flashback as Hélène recounts the past eight months to her therapist, Simple Passion paints an impressionistic portrait of an exciting but ill-advised affair between university lecturer Hélène and a young, married Russian man who frequents Paris on business. Her friends enjoy the vicarious thrill of Hélène’s dalliances with her attractive, younger lover, but gently warn her against falling for so ill a suitor.
But fall, of course, she does, despite them having virtually nothing in common except for an intense sexual attraction, fuelled by the thrill of their clandestine encounters. Arbid certainly makes that thrill easy to understand in the numerous and explicit sex scenes, captured with both passion and intimacy. Shot during the daytime, Hélène and Aleksandr (Sergei Polunin) are exposed both to our gaze and each others, yet Pascale Granel’s grainy, rich cinematography bathes his subjects in warm light; these sequences are often as comforting as they are erotic, signalling Hélène’s search for a connection beyond the carnal.
Dosch, shot frequently in close up, illuminates the screen with a subtle charisma, yet is never less than entirely relatable in her depiction of a lonely, flawed person approaching middle age. Meanwhile, Polunin’s Aleksandr is as skeevy as they come. His greasy, floppy hair and emotional indifference telling us all we need to know about his intentions; it’s no surprise that the halfway point reveals his real attitudes towards women and his sense of ownership over Hélène, tinged with a nasty suggestion of violence.
And yet she continues to see him, and when he inevitably tires of her, pine for him for months afterwards. There’s room for criticism here – we see little of her professional life despite being an academic seemingly in her prime, while her relationship with her son feels schematic and underwritten. Nevertheless, it’s clear throughout that Hélène was never really in love with Aleksandr, but the idea of him: a vessel for her desire to inhabit, a self-destructive spiral that can only and ultimately implode on itself. In this, Simple Passion perfectly captures the giddy, heedless foolishness of infatuation.