L'ENNUI

Directed by Cédric Kahn

Written by Kahn and Laurence Ferreira Barbosa, based on Alberto Moravia's novel LA NOIA

With Charles Berling, Sophie Guillemin, Arielle Dombasle and Robert Kramer

Distributed by Phaedra Cinema

***1/2

Opens in New York October 9th


What could be more "typically French" than a film about a philosopher in the throes of l'amour fou? Both theory and upscale T&A rank among France's greatest exports, as one can see from Trimark's attempt to market Catherine Breillat's thorny and cynical but extremely explicit ROMANCE as arty softcore porn. If films like L'ENNUI, Pascal Bonitzer's ENCORE, André Téchiné's LES VOLEURS and Arnaud Desplechin's MY SEX LIFE...OR HOW I GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT are accurate representations of French life, teaching philosophy there is a sure way to get some action. (In fact, L'ENNUI co-star Dombasle is married in real life to philosopher/filmmaker Bernard Henri-Levy.) I can only imagine that the conversations that Breillat's heroine, who delivers a sub-Bataille/D.H. Lawrence voice-over to accompany her adventures in sexual frustration and degradation, could have with Martin, Kahn and Moravia's depressed protagonist. (The sex would be too nightmarish for even Breillat to imagine.) L'ENNUI delivers copious nude scenes - featuring both Berling and Guillemin - and sex, but it's hardly an ode to the pleasures of the flesh. Instead it's a sterling example of the Miserable Arthouse Sex genre - only slightly more optimistic than LAST TANGO IN PARIS or IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES - yet Kahn has a welcome sense of humor and the courage, like Breillat, to imagine a possible catharsis for his characters.

While on sabbatical and upset about his inability to write, Martin meets Cecilia (Guillemin), a 17-year-old girl who was the lover and model of Meyers (played by filmmaker Robert Kramer), a middle-aged painter whom he had met by chance in a sleazy bar. Attracted by the rumor that Meyers died from a heart attack during sex with her soon after that encounter, Martin begins an affair with this supposed "femme fatale", becoming painfully jealous when he suspects that she's also sleeping with a boy her own age. Frustrated by their relationship but unable to end it, he falls into a pattern of spiraling self-destructive, obsessive behavior.

L'ENNUI follows a rhythm as much a story: Kahn hitches his film to the accelerating tempo of Martin's death drive. A man so neurotic and self-absorbed that he sees nothing wrong with barging into a dinner party held by his ex-wife (Dombasle), driving her guests away with his ranting and then demanding to stay the night and so jealous that he sometimes calls Cecilia's phone number three times in a row to check up on her, he makes Woody Allen like a low-maintenance boyfriend. Although he and Cecilia are the only fully developed characters, but Kahn shows just enough of her (troubled, of course) family and his ex-wife to make one wonder about their pasts. However, she seems content with the role of a sex object - all body, no mind - that Martin assigns her, usually doffing her clothes immediately after walking in the door. No matter how much he tries using their purely sexual attraction to overcome his alienation from his own body, he can't help treating her contemptuously because she's not an intellectual. (As in Anne Fontaine's DRY CLEANING, Berling has been cast as a character about 10 years older than himself.) He constantly asks questions, while she offers simple responses to his queries and takes life as it goes. Even as he tells his ex-wife that "her cunt is more expressive than her mouth," he goes on making outrageous demands on Cecilia, whose diffidence and "infidelity" seem like a reasonable response to their relationship's limits. In short, the couple is a match made in hell, and Martin makes matters worse by trying his best to drag everyone around him into his private torment.

L'ENNUI is a devastating anatomy of an asshole - one British critic went so far as to say that "Kahn has come close to understanding the psyche of a rapist" before adding "not that this is what L'ENNUI is about, exactly" - yet it delves deeper than a simple indictment of male boorishness. A friend of mine found Martin so unattractive that the film left him completely cold, yet Berling and Kahn make his pain quite palpable even as one laughs at his increasingly silly behavior and longs for someone to give him a reality check. (His ex-wife tries, without much success.) To borrow a phrase from Bertolucci, this story is the tragedy of a ridiculous man, and its tragedy and ridiculousness both hit home forcefully: the humor doesn't make his predicament any easier to watch. Few films have treated the ugliest aspects of "love" so intensely and compassionately. This isn't exactly a fun night out at the movies - Jonathan Romney insightfully compared its mix of sex and intense dialogue to the Marquise de Sade's novels -but it offers the kind of overwhelming experience that lingers long after the lights have come up.