Review: Danielle Arbid’s Spellbinding Erotic Drama ‘Simple Passion’ (‘Passion simple’)

Annie Ernaux’s 1991 novel Passion simple receives a cinematic adaptation courtesy of writer-director Danielle Arbid. Translating to English as Simple Passion, the feature stars French actress Laetitia Dosch and Ukrainian ballet dancer and actor Sergei Polunin. This intimate erotic drama explores the dichotomy of a two sided affair: one seeking physical pleasure, the other longing for emotional and intellectual connection.

Simple Passion sees left-leaning lecturer Hélène Auguste (Dosch) begin a sexual relationship with married Russian diplomat Aleksandr Svitsin (Polunin) who makes regular visits to France through work. Both are drawn together through their heated and all-consuming sexual chemistry, yet Hélène longs for more commitment from Aleksandr – something which he is unwilling to provide.

Arbid’s direction and cinematography from Pascale Granel captures this romance with a consuming intimacy, we become familiar with every curve and crevice of Dosch and Polunin’s bodies through the heated physical dynamic of the pair. Arbid’s exploration of the female gaze feels masterful, capturing the longing and passionate eye in which Hélène views Aleksandr. Framed with light, bright white interiors – often Hélène’s home where Aleksandr makes regular visits – the lovers are regularly lit by a natural sunlight bringing a sense of elegance to the full-frontal demands of the role for Dosch and Polunin.

With each of these sexual encounters, we see Hélène’s adoration build further. Early scenes with Hélène at the cinema with a female friend suggest an almost cynical approach to love, with the divorcee noting “Some beautiful women will go there whole life unloved,” yet Hélène’s opens herself to the possibility of finding this with Simple Passion exploring her giving her all to Aleksandr.

When Hélène is not with Aleksandr, she is tethered to her phone waiting for his arrival, she researches him – intrigued by the mystery that surrounds the Moscow-based official. When he reveals his arrival with impromptu surprise, Hélène is quick to dispose of her near-teenage son or dart from her work at the university. Hélène even spends her down time learning Russian – perhaps convincing herself that there is a future that surpasses simply sex with this married stranger. The imbalance of Hélène and Aleksandr’s relationship is clear to viewers, with part of the reason Simple Passion is so effective and absorbing being the hope that she will realise too.

When Hélène and Aleksandr are in each other’s company, there is little emotional connection – yet Hélène is still gripped by the handsome stranger’s presence and aura. The Russian is pro-Putin and adores Hollywood movies, she is a left-leaning intellectual who teaches classic poetry. Yet Arbid raises the question, is the physical enough sometimes? Or is Hélène simply chasing a romantic fantasy which would leave her unsatisfied emotionally in the long run. Despite this lack of connection, Arbid captures the addictive obsession Aleksandr and Hélène have with one another – with each dangerous encounter Hélène growing further attached to the stranger who disappears for weeks at a time.

As proceedings progress and Aleksandr’s visits lessen, Arbid impressively captures the unravelling of Hélène with a tragic empathy. Simple Passion grows more experimental in these moments with Hélène at one moment believing she sees Aleksandr on multiple street corners; and visits Russia (in a sequence perfectly soundtracked by Leonard Cohen’s The Stranger Song). Further music choices include a scene set to Yazoo’s Only You which has a surprising poignancy.

Laetitia Dosch is spectacular in her conviction as she explores the nuances of Hélène’s affection. We can understand why she longs for Aleksandr – and whilst we may as viewers be more objective about the way she is emotionally treated – the actress authentically portrays just how spellbound she is. Particularly as Hélène veers into self-destructive panic as the narrative progresses, Dosch’s performance is remarkably authentic. Sergei Polunin is equally impressive, the role requiring a more dominant physicality than emotional nuance, the actor remains quite spellbinding as the emotionally-closed Russian man of mystery.

Simple Passion is undeniably the first remarkable film of 2021. Danielle Arbid’s exploration of the female gaze and the intimacy and conviction with which she directs ensures that the feature truly absorbs. Laetitia Dosch delivers a complex and heartfelt performance and Sergei Polunin delivers an enigmatic charm and appeal.

Simple Passion is available from Curzon from February 5th.