Q (aka Desire)

France (2011) Dir. Laurent Bouhnik

If there is one topic in film which will attract one audience and repel another at the same time it is sex. And while it is one thing to be a bit steamy and raunchy in mainstream cinema, it is another to be borderline pornographic, ever if the filmmaker insists they are creating honest art.

Q (also known as Desire in some markets) is one of those films featuring very explicit and often non-simulated sex scenes yet director Laurent Bouhnik occasionally drops hints that he has apparent grander designs in exploring deeper emotional themes. It’s certainly a fine line to tread and – depending on your point of view – films like Blue Is The Warmest Colour and Nymphomaniac show it is possible to achieve this.

At the centre of this tale is Cécile (Deborah Révy), a young woman who in the wake of her father dying becomes extremely promiscuous despite having a boyfriend in habitual troublemaker Chance (Johnny Amaro). Any man that catches her eye she will flirt with, tease, seduce but rarely scores as she is too intense for them, but she enjoys the game nonetheless.

Elsewhere one of Cécile’s failed conquests Matt (Gowan Didi) is dating shy Alice (Hélène Zimmer) who has little confidence in her ability to please Matt, a result of her strict, over protective mother (Christine Martin) oppressing and belittling her. Because Alice can’t turn Matt on, he finds himself drawn to Cécile but know he shouldn’t even when she throws herself at him.

As much as Cécile is the focus of the story she is also a catalyst and Bouhnik uses her to get his message across which is that surrendering oneself to their carnal desires will open up locked or repressed emotional connections with people and life. This might sound flippant but such unique philosophy could only really come from France (well, maybe Italy too) and maybe some of us foreigners are a little too uptight to subscribe to this theory.

For the horn dogs out there Bouhnik’s argument in favour of this suggestion will make compelling and stimulating viewing although it is more likely that the message may not shine through with such titillating clouds regularly drifting into view. Instead we are given the impression that everyone in France is sex mad (quelle surprise) and women in general are engaging in sexual liberation against their “useless pig” male counterparts.

It might just be my glib interpretation of this but the female cast, mostly Cécile’s social circle, are a demanding bunch and while they resent being playthings for their lovers they also demand a lot from them too. Therefore is Bouhnik endorsing women sleeping around to find that ultimate sexual satisfaction and hopefully the emotional attachment too? And why are they with these men if they are such losers?

One aspect of the story which is immensely underplayed to the point of invisibility is the current economic crisis, allegedly the social grounding of the plot. There are a few ham fisted mentions thrown into the script (“Our men are so horny” “That’s because there are bored due to the lack of jobs”) which is lazy writing and makes a mockery of the official plot summaries which highlight this as a major theme.

However it seems Bouhnik was deliberately holding out on us as the final act brings to a conclusion a series of black and white asides littered throughout the film of naked female bodies in a communal shower while disembodied voices complain about men and their sexual foibles and failings. Each scene reveals more of the bodies until we finally see the speakers complete and why they are together.

Cécile features heavily in the sex scenes but she shares the love too. On a ferry Cécile encounters a married couple Virginie (Christelle Benoit) and Yves (Patrick Hauthier), openly flirting with Yves, giving him her underwear. Learning Virginie is unable to get intimate with Yves after a traumatic experience, Cécile hatches a plan to help.

Her other pet project is Alice, whom she again meets on a ferry, embroils her in the theft of a mobile phone then seduces her in the bathroom. As if by magic removing Alice’s glasses, letting her hair down and pleasuring her awakens something in the meek girl and the eager butterfly has left the cocoon, but with one particular flower she wishes to rest upon.

Much like most of the characters Alice is a fairly clichéd character and one can predict her trajectory from the moment she appears on screen, but Hélène Zimmer delivers  suitably delicate and expressive performance that makes her an engaging presence and the most relatable of the personalities.

Cécile is a difficult character to gauge, lacking any sympathetic qualities for the audience to respond to, and certainly her promiscuity doesn’t lend itself to making her likeable. Making this empathy more difficult is the lack of backstory involving her father and why his death would trigger such a self-destructive streak in her.

Regardless Deborah Révy is captivating in this role and while she isn’t given enough to convey the emotional distress of Cécile, she boldly commits to baring herself in essaying the journey of a lost and clearly damaged young woman hiding behind a confident sex kitten façade.

Laurent Bouhnik isn’t a director familiar to me so I have nothing to compare this too but for someone with nearly twenty years to his credit as a writer and director, this experience didn’t come across here. I’m sure his intentions of making a female encouraging female liberation were well intended and earnest but the film doesn’t reflect this, the message obscured by the explicit erotica and a lack of engagement and depth in other scenes.

One wonders if Q would work without the sex scenes allowing Bouhnik to define his characters better and the story resonating more clearly with less obstruction. However the main performances hold our interest for the duration of this beguiling if clouded parable.

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