CURIOSA: A FRENCH VISION OF 19TH CENTURY EROTICISM
The French love l'amour. The French definition defies the English meaning, "an illicit love affair (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)." No movie better explains this than Curiosa (2021, U.S. release) starring Noémie Merlant (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), Niels Schneider, and Benjamin Lavernhe. Three people thrust into desire by circumstance and impotence.
Merlant portrays Marie De Régnier; Lavernhe her husband, Henri Régnier, incapable of physical love yet amorous in his poetry, and Schneider as Marie's lover, Pierre Louÿs. Marie and Pierre also share a love of poetry, as well as writing. Their enjoyment of nude photography takes their affair to a new level. They enjoy breaking the taboos of 19th century relationships and sexual norms.
Like any complicated union, the dynamics change over time. One certainty, despite his discovery of Marie's infidelity, knowing whom she sees, Henri accepts his wife's infidelity if discreet. What ensues, loosely based on true events, involves others: Zohra (an uninhibited lover of Pierre's and later Marie, played by Camélia Jordana), Marie's sister, Louise, plus Henri and Pierre's mutual friend, Jean de Tinan (Emilien Diard-Detoeuf). These men and women confuse matters for the passionate twosome, contributing to the drama. Among the supporting actors, no one seems out of place.
Production-wise, period films often move at a staid pace with restrained movement, stilted photography. In Curiosa, the cinematographer, Simon Roca, and Director/Co-writer Lou Jeunet lovingly capture the fullness of these characters passion. The nudity becomes integral to the moving images as well as the still photography.
Superlative acting helps keep our attention as well. Noémie Merlant dazzles as Marie. We're introduced, early, to her curious family--her upwardly mobile parents want Marie to marry a prospect with money, though they often entertain wayward guests.
Merlant's impressionable Marie displays an initial reserve that unravels in increments. She evolves from an innocent coquette who marries a man she doesn't love to a modern woman, albeit duplicitous and manipulative, who assumes control of her life. Baring one's soul takes on a new meaning for this character.
Further, despite the sensational subject matter, the story never succumbs to tawdriness or exploitation. We care about these characters while being occasionally stunned by their free spirits, the line between actor and his/her portrayal becomes blurred. Reminding us that their passionate nature must break from the confines of societal shackles, even if it makes the viewer uncomfortable.
Nothing in the complexity of love is easy. We may not agree with Marie and Pierre's choices but Curiosa succeeds in exposing, baring the visual sense of what l'amour means in French culture--opening yourself up to every possibility while and accepting the consequences of being indiscreet. For scandal has its price.
Curiosa gives new meaning to eroticism. Anaïs Nin would've been impressed.
Unrated. Adults only: full frontal nudity (including men), adventurous sexual encounters , and morally ambiguous behavior. French with English subtitles.
Available on Virtual Digital, VOD (Video on Demand) and Digital August 13.
Earlier reviews not seen on this website (before May 20, 2021) are available on https://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/wendy-shreve/movies or my previous blog site, featuringfilm.com
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