By Gary M. Kramer.
Intensely erotic, and featuring beaucoup nudity, Jean-Marc Barr and Pascal Arnold’s Sexual Chronicles of a French Family wants to talk about–and show–people having sex. The filmmakers delight in presenting the subject both visually and verbally as the characters discuss sex as much as they are seen vigorously enjoying it. Significantly, neither the characters nor the filmmakers judge sex or sexuality; fucking for this French family is enjoyable, celebratory, and never shameful. And that is what makes the film so exciting.
Romain (Mathias Melloul), the youngest son in a three-generation household, narrates Sexual Chronicles of a French Family. He is that direst of combinations a horny and virginal teenager. The skin-thin plot originates when Romain is suspended from school after he is caught filming himself masturbating in class. His mother, Claire (Valérie Maës) takes this situation as a cue to investigate her family’s sexual behaviors; she wants to understand what everyone desires.
Claire learns–and more importantly, appreciates–that her father-in-law Michel (Yan Brian) sees Nathalie (Laëtitia Favart), a prostitute; that her older son Pierre (Nathan Duval) is a bisexual; and her adopted daughter Marie (Leila Denio) is sexually fulfilled. In contrast, Romain is hoping that his mother won’t share his transgression at school with other members of the family. He also worries about his parent’s marriage.
Barr and Arnold engender a certain amount of poignancy in Claire’s separate conversations with Romain, Michel, and Pierre. She graciously acknowledges Michel’s wanting physical intimacy, and is frustrated that her son Pierre cannot be more forthcoming with her about his relationships when they meet for dinner. She is taken aback earlier in the film when Pierre reveals he broke up with his girlfriend. But her attitude about sex and her family is enticing. As she delves deeper into everyone’s personal life, viewers will want to know more, too. Unfortunately–and perhaps deliberately–not everything is revealed.
The film omits any heart-to-heart chat between Claire and Marie. This seems to be a missed opportunity to explore female desire, since women seem to have the sexual power in the film–although Claire does have a revealing chat late with Natalie late in the film.
It is also a disappointment that Barr and Arnold skim over the Pierre’s polyamorous activities. While there are a few brief scenes of his threesomes with another man and a woman, these episodes lack the extensive intimacy of the film’s heterosexual couplings. Even if Pierre is cagey with his mother about his sexuality, the filmmakers have featured explicit menages a trois before, most recently in American Translation and One to Another. It is curious that the bisexual character is the most underdeveloped here.
Sexual Chronicles of a French Family touches on activities/proclivities such as voyeurism and video-recording, dirty talk and masturbation without making any of them seem filthy. This is part of the film’s appeal. Barr and Arnold are not out to shock; their point is to take the taboo out of sex, which they do with noticeable élan.
Yet despite all its charms and erotic charges, some viewers will want more from the slight Sexual Chronicles of a French Family. Nevertheless, there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing all the couples copulate. The film’s intimate style is as stimulating as the intimacy on screen.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews and a frequent contributor to Film International’s Around the Circuit column. His coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival is forthcoming in the next issue.