“Everyone’s fucking except me. And it’s driving me crazy.” So says 18-year-old Romain (Matthias Melloul), echoing a sentiment felt by the sexually hard-up world-wide. He’s not exaggerating, either. Here’s a young man so desperate to get to fornicating he gets caught indulging in onanistic pleasure in his biology class. His indiscretion causes his mother, Claire (Valérie Maës) to resolve to discuss sex more freely with her family, and it transpires they’re all at it in the manner of gleeful French bunnies (lapins sexuelles?). Romain’s widowed granddad is rumping with a whore. His sister is partial to hanky panky with veritable strangers. His brother blithely drops mentions of his three-ways at the dinner table, while his father is fond of talking streams of florid fantastical filth at his mother.
There’s little more to Sexual Chronicles of a French Family than a series of vignettes depicting Romain’s family en flagrante, and his increasing frustration at being the only member of his clan not to be making the beast with two backs. However, far from being slight, or pornographic in nature, it is a delightfully observed and occasionally poignant comedy of manners. The relationships are delicately portrayed, each character sketched with empathy and insight. The prostitute-frequenting grandfather is allowed moments of genuine pathos, “When your mother died, sex became a problem. I solved it with my hand, like a teenager. I felt alone, and unmanned.” The parents’ sex life is warm depiction of the lengths two people who know each other’s bodies backwards will go to remain interested – and interesting – to one another. And Romain’s desperation is wittily detailed, with all the awkwardness attendant to trying to pop one’s cherry. A likeable, naturalistic cast flesh out these characters admirably – and with a fearless attitude to baring all.
At the heart of Chronicles are it’s sex scenes, and it takes a thankfully realistic approach to depicting the deed. It understands that in many ways, sex isn’t sexy – it is sticky, banal, and awkward. The film is wall-to-wall with celluloid pumping: scenes which are frank, but not designed to titillate. It’s also equal opportunity perversion: the male body is lingered over by the camera as longingly as the female, which is refreshing in a cinematic world where traditionally it’s only the female flesh we get to ogle. Disapproving critics have levelled accusations at Chronicles of it being pornography, and whilst that may be true of previous forays into sex-as-storytelling flicks such as 9 Songs
or In The Realm of the Senses
, this film – the fifth from French directorial team Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr – instead demonstrates such nuance in its displays of screwing it illuminates the very complex nature of sex, and what it means to those who are sexing. It understands that people’s attitudes to both sex and morality are constantly evolving. “If you love life, you love sex,” pronounces Clare to her bewildered children, but the film knows there’s more to copulating than that.
In many ways, Chronicles is akin to the perfect sexual partner: Perceptive, silly, open-minded, creative, and, crucially, gleefully libertine in spirit. Get on it.