THE NATURE OF LOVE (TIFF 2023) – Review by Nadine Whitney

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Simple comme Sylvain

Sophia (Magalie Lépine Blondeau) a highly educated and urbane part-time academic is sitting at a dinner table with a group of friends who debate relativism and universalism. A young French woman, who has caught the eye of Sophia’s partner Xavier (Francis-William Rhéaume) offers that love is the concept that cannot be reduced in either stance. Love transcends. In Monia Chokri’s The Nature of Love (Simple comme Sylvain) that idea is put into comedic and messy praxis proving that the very notion of love and what it entails, is a question philosophers have grappled with for centuries – and the confusion between what love is and what it is supposed to be is very much situated in a real world context and not the realm of the poets.

Sophia has fallen into a quotidian rut with her academic partner, Xavier. They have reached a point in their relationship where they sleep in separate rooms and have bedtime conversations from their respective single beds. Sophia is teaching an adult education class on the Philosophy of Love (which encompasses voices from Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and bell hooks). Chokri uses Sophia’s classes to meta interrogate the relationship that the teacher finds herself in after meeting the working class, Sylvain (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) who is a contractor fixing up her ramshackle cabin in the Laurentian Mountains.

The attraction between Sylvain and Sophia is immediate and explosive. Within the space of twenty-four-hours they go from discussing their very different lives to earthy, lusty, sex. It’s only a matter of time before Sophia blows up her relationship with Xavier, a man who leaves her books by Gaston Bachelard as gifts and throws herself into a romance with Sylvain, a man who gives her uncomfortable lingerie as a gift and tells her she looks almost as good as a porn star.

There is more to The Nature of Love than a tale of mismatched lovers. The film looks at the social and class conditions that have created Sophia and Sylvain and how they both don’t quite fit in their own lives, let alone each other’s. Sophia is reaching forty and after years with Xavier and his intellectual and class-based snobbery and dealing with her pretentious brother Kevin (Matheiu Baron) an “artist” with an ever revolving group of partners who berates their mother for even mentioning Damien Hirst in relationship to whatever conceptual art piece he is crafting – she is tired. Sylvain’s “simplicity” (as referenced in the French language title) is that he is a little gauche, brutishly jealous, but actually curious about who Sophia is.

Sophia watches other relationships around her. Xavier’s mother is having a nervous breakdown because she is losing her husband to Alzheimer’s. Sophia has to wonder if she will ever love anyone enough to be with them through their final, heart-breaking, days. What does love mean to her? Is it the combative sex-fuelled mess that her best friend Francoise (Monia Chokri) has with her husband? Is it the ability to share jokes about daddy issues and dictators with someone who understands the depth of her intellect? Or is it being swept away by a grand passion that is destined to fail?

Magalie Lépine Blondeau and Pierre-Yves Cardinal both do an excellent job of delivering characters whose discomfort with each other’s worlds is delivered via putting on a front of acceptance for things they cannot relate to. Sylvain’s social gaffes carry weight in Sophia’s soigné set. Sophia can barely swallow the cheap wine offered by Sylvain’s conspiracy believing alcoholic mother and sits quietly while his family congratulate him for essentially “bagging” a pretty Bourgeoisie intellectual. Her initial chaffing at Xavier’s insistence that the small-town working-class people are “rednecks” by reminding him that not everyone had a family prepared to pay for two college degrees gradually give way to the realisation that she might also be as elitist as the people she has been surrounded by.

Bringing in Xavier Dolan’s regular cinematographer, André Turpin to create a visual palette that is reminiscent of Sirk and Altman, Chokri admits that she is skirting between a specific kind of kitsch and auteur drama. Sylvain is a Rock Hudson type – inappropriate in Sophia’s social milieu, but unlike Rock his wintery coats and rugged appeal don’t give way to a man who will be the happy-ever-after. Chokri is too biting for that. Sophia might be torn between two worlds, but she favours her own privilege too much to give herself over to a man who can’t properly parse sentences, quotes Michel Sardou, has no discernible “taste” and is blinded by his own masculine ego.

The Nature of Love is a bitterly droll romantic comedy that pokes fun at the genre itself. Chokri asks you to sit with her characters who can’t move out of their own ways to make anything work in their lives. Ultimately, Chokri does have a fondness for the imperfect people she has written. Maybe none of it is really their fault – just a case of circumstance and opportunity. What is love anyway?

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.