Sexual Chronicles Of A French Family

Sexual Chronicles Of A French Family

***1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

A well-meaning if occasionally misjudged slice of art-porn, this straight-faced Gallic spin on American Pie is made poignant through its unfashionably introverted protagonist and a matter-of-fact perspective on sex that focuses on its positive side, in a variety of permutations. While some of the film predictably degenerates into hot young people rutting, American Translation directors Jean-Marc Barr and Pascal Arnold wisely obscure genitalia to keep the focus on the performers' characters. There's even some comedy of embarrassment to lighten the mood, and at a tight but still perhaps stretched 77 minutes, the dirty mac brigade are (mercifully) barely even given time to get their rocks off.

Romain is a typical teen, with one thing on his mind: sex. However, he seems to be the only person in his life who isn't getting any; his family all seem to be at it all the time, even hoary old Gramps. When a technology-assisted game of classroom flashing goes wrong, his family take it upon themselves to try to enlighten the poor boy, but their efforts only make his discomfort and insecurity even worse. A seemingly promiscuous and flirty classmate may offer a glimmer of hope for the intercourse-starved teen, but he must also quell his virgin nerves if he's to avoid making a fool of himself and perhaps becoming doomed to a life of involuntary chastity.

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Opening with phone-recorded footage of a schoolgirl filming the underwear-free zone between her legs, the directors constantly provoke the audience in order to avoid easy titillation. Many of their set-piece scenes have something to say beneath the shock tactics though, whether they're skewering the youngsters' desensitising addiction to cameras or highlighting the vacuity of internet romance. As the story opens up to incorporate the rest of the family, their individual neuroses and dynamics are deftly explored, from the desirable sister with the new boobs to the threesome-soliciting brother who's undecided about which half of the prospective couples he's most interested in.

These two characters will become problematic for some viewers, as their relatively uneventful sex scenes may seem to dominate the narrative; they're arguably too shallow as characters to care about and too attractive to be related to. Nevertheless, their romps are charged with nervous energy, especially in the case of the cocksure brother, whose swagger is matched only by his deep-seated homo-erotic desires. The sister's sexual awakening - with the first boyfriend to bring her to climax - has a bittersweet charge, but there's no denying these lengthy sequences are the most exploitative in the film, serving little purpose other than to give certain audience 'members' what they've no doubt (ahem) come for, given the bare-faced cheek of the title. Meanwhile, the mother and father bemoan their boring lives, despite clearly having nothing to worry about - even though they're hardly given a look-in, their situation is almost offensively upper-middle-class.

Other plot strands hold more intrigue however, particularly the randy geriatric Grandfather. His frank and sometimes funny conversations with his grandson and daughter are refreshing, showing the former to be less of a misery-guts than he appears and the latter to have an agreeable quality that transcends her yuppie smugness. The Grandfather's regular visits to an appreciative prostitute - who's obviously aging herself - may offer a naive representation of that age-old profession, but they're still shot through with a sweet longing that counteracts the folds of sagging flesh.

Overall, though, the film will resonate with some because of the believable sense of frustration and helplessness that the narrating Romain conveys. Mathias Melloul makes for a hugely sympathetic protagonist, slyly lampooning his own teenage angst and venting his bitterness at his shag-happy family with every bated breath and ringing thought. Employing a voice-over was a risky gamble for something as arty as this, but Romain's barbed commentary dissipates the potentially po-faced drama and brings sharp relief from the wall-to-wall humping. His climactic scenes may go on for an excruciating length of time - far too long for a first-timer, some may say - but it feels every bit earned, and it's a heartening conclusion to a bumpy ride.

An unnecessary coda outstays its welcome and wraps things up a little too neatly - with persuasions revealed and Romain gifted one last scene that should be uplifting but comes off as curiously sleazy - but the film ends on a note of very literal sexual healing that's as simple and pleasing as the birds and the bees. The French Family may be too sickeningly affluent for some viewers to give a chance, while the directors' voyeuristic glare will prove too much for sensitive souls, but the less easily ruffled will hopefully find that these Chronicles walk an impressively fine line between keen observation, subtle satire and absorbing drama.

Reviewed on: 27 Jul 2012
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Three generations of a French family and their sex lives.

Festivals:

EIFF 2012

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