Film Review: Sexual Chronicles of a French Family

A highly schematic film about how the members of a family each revel in their own sexuality; there’s a nice, healthy glow here apparently meant to substitute for story.

If Jean-Marc Barr and Pascal Arnold had written a school essay about the proper exploration of human sexuality instead of shooting a film, they likely would have received a B+ and the supportive notation “Good effort!” circled in red at the top. There are good intentions riddled throughout their wholeheartedly well-meaning work. Unfortunately, what Sexual Chronicles of a French Family also has plenty of are those glued-on segues and just-the-basics characterizations that bring to mind the endless parade of star-stuffed Hollywood “adaptations” of nonfiction titles on relationships or childbearing.

If this film were a counselor, you would go to it for advice and be happy. But it’s not, so as the viewer of the movie you may leave the experience slightly mystified. At first, the dramatic dilemma seems easy enough. Eighteen-year-old Romain (Mathias Meilou, leaving little trace of his passing) is the youngest of a well-to-do French family who is driven to depression by his virginity. It being the wireless age, instead of just grousing about it, he does the next best thing: accept a dare from a schoolmate and film himself on his cell-phone masturbating during class. This being considered bad form in your better schools on the Continent, Romain is bundled off to the principal, who calls his mother (Valérie Maës), whom he expects to erupt in outrage. Instead, she seems confused and later decides to turn the incident into a reason for the family to open up about their sexuality.

This is less in-your-face than it might sound, with no talk of taboos to break or hypocrisies to lay bare. What Barr and Arnold are doing is establishing the barest of frameworks so that they can illustrate the ways in which each member of the family is expressing their sexuality. It’s a rough framework that shows some creakiness at the start. This is particularly evident in the scene where Claire (a lawyer whom Romain characterizes with adolescent pique as uptight and overly analytical) decides to suddenly interrogate her widower father-in-law (Yan Brian) about his love life with the most banal of opening gambits: “Michel, we live under the same roof and we don’t communicate.” More unbelievably, with no further provocation, he soliloquizes about the friendly prostitute he visits twice a month. While a highly melodramatic Romain considers making a play for the pert blonde provocateur whose dare got him suspended, everyone else is rutting a-plenty, whether it’s Romain’s older half-sister Marie (Leïla Denio), currently burning up the sheets with her hot-to-trot boyfriend, or his older brother Pierre (Nathan Duval), a louche and arrogant type with a sleepy smile and a penchant for ménage a trois.

The filmmakers have said that they set out to create something that approached sex from a more liberated and credible point of view than the dominant airbrushed acrobatic norms of the porn film. That they succeeded is not in question. Their many sex scenes are shot neither with a strategic view to maximize eroticism or an attempt to transgress some imagined taboo, but rather with a warm and sometimes revelatory matter-of-factness that echoes the wise quirkiness of Hong Sang-soo (see Woman Is the Future of Man, in particular).

If only the same could be said for anything else about the film. Sexual Chronicles of a French Family has little going for it in terms of acting, which is self-conscious at the best of times and flat-out bad at the worst, or story, which can barely be said even to exist. Characters and motivation could charitably be described as tertiary, with the filmmakers just throwing everything together under the guise of achieving sexual fulfillment in a nonjudgmental space. This isn’t a film so much as it is a mission statement