Casual, Boring Sex
Published on May 31st, 2012 | by Cole Hutchison0
“Sexual Chronicles of a French Family” opens Friday, June 1 at IFC Center.
Running time: 85 minutes. Unrated. In French w/English subtitles.
The NPR station that I listen to regularly at work has been running a program over the past week or so focusing on the idea of whether or not war, as a human social construct, could ever be abolished. It’s an odd subject for debate, one that reeks suspiciously of a dearth of better, more fleshed-out ideas and that is also unfortunately tinted by the obvious tote bag liberal leanings of NPR’s supposedly objective commentators. The featured guests and vast spectrum of callers have thankfully been more representative of an ideological prism, ranging as they do from optimistic pacifist authors and knowledgeable war veteran peaceniks to former sociology professors and marginally educated students who espouse statistical and historical evidence to support the idea that war is either a regrettable human invention that could eventually be wiped out by more patience and understanding, or that it is an inevitable byproduct of animalistic human nature. All of the conversations have at least been interesting, and it would be difficult to pinpoint any specific moments where the utopian idealism of the one side has been either triumphant over or vanquished by the more pragmatic and—let’s face it—reasonable acquiescence to man’s more aggressive urges represented by the other. And while I would certainly not shun the possibility of a more peaceful world, the entire argument has been woefully negligent of one sad but undeniable fact: the narrative of human existence, without conflict, would be pretty fucking boring. Even dolphins fight.
Such a lack of conflict is only one of several issues that plagues “Sexual Chronicles of a French Family,” the new erotic French dramedy from directors Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr. I use the term “erotic” somewhat reluctantly, as my own personal experience has often led me to associate the most arousing of sexual incidences with at least some degree of excitement stirred by danger, mystery or downright debauchery. There really isn’t any of that here. Arnold and Barr frame their subject in such a light-hearted and good-natured way that it’s just as difficult to discover any salacious morsels of titillation as it is to be offended by any of the events that take place. Existing seemingly as a pseudo-nature documentary about the sexual habits of one remarkably well-to-do French family blessed (of course) with strikingly beautiful genes, the film struggles to find a relatable framework by providing sparse narration from one of the film’s characters, the youngest son embarking on the clichéd quest to lose his virginity. We’ve all seen this movie before, but here our directors attempt to add some new life to the tired tale by having our protagonist belong to an almost unbelievably open and understanding sphere of peers and family members. The film does take a refreshing approach to its characters’ sexuality, refusing to pass even a modicum of judgment towards any of their actions. This is great; but the overall sense of acceptance and complete lack of transgression don’t make for very entertaining entertainment. Human sexuality is weird and can be dangerous. That’s part of the fun.
The characters themselves are a relatively likeable and completely inoffensive lot, representing as they do the most basic stereotypes of an extended nuclear family. Our hero’s older brother is discovering his bisexuality through participating in a series of convenient and totally safe threesomes and wearing comfy sweaters. The older sister has a boyfriend whom she loves completely and finds total physical satisfaction with despite his distracting nipple ring. The grandfather misses his deceased wife and occasionally visits a prostitute, but it’s no big deal because she’s very sweet and legitimately “loves all men.” Even the minefield of possible conflict that is the parents’ long-term stagnating sex life is dealt with quickly and neatly by a brief and almost offensively tame scene depicting what the directors would consider to be a bit of mildly kinky role-play. The multiple sex scenes, each of which manages to go on long enough to become surprisingly boring, are miraculous in their ability to be both explicit and tepid. The film somehow combines the gratuitous lingering shots of the most amateur pornography with the total lack of passion resultant from watching two characters whom we have no knowledge of or interest in pressing their bodies together. These scenes are needlessly drawn out, thus breaking up the already scant narrative flow, and unforgivably boring. The effect is bizarre, but not enough so to be compelling.
I guess I just don’t understand what the point is. The film doesn’t really work on any level; not as an educational look into the burgeoning sexuality of a confused young man, a naturalistic depiction of sex in its many incarnations, nor even as a basic, gentle comedy about one family’s quirks. Takashi Miike’s 2001 opus of familial dysfunction “Visitor Q” managed to work as all of those things and much, much more. And perhaps within this comparison lies the ultimate problem. Miike is an antagonistic storyteller who utilizes often repulsive content and extreme conflict to force his viewers into at least having an opinion and occasionally realizing some transcendent truths about human nature. Even the ethereal voices on NPR engage in heated arguments sometimes. It would be nice if Arnold and Barr invited us to even think about sex with their non-sexy sex film as opposed to simply saying, “Here is something.” Who cares?