Sex and the female gaze

Director Danielle Arbid on intimacy, adaptations, and a Fassbinder remake

by Richard Mowe

Sergei Polunin and Laetitia Dosch in Simple Passion. Danielle Arbid: 'I don’t think there are that many films that are so physically explicit although in the current crisis I think we need to feel and see the touch of others'
Sergei Polunin and Laetitia Dosch in Simple Passion. Danielle Arbid: 'I don’t think there are that many films that are so physically explicit although in the current crisis I think we need to feel and see the touch of others' Photo: Julien Roche/Unifrance
When Danielle Arbid was delving around for the subject for her new film Simple Passion (Passion simple) little did she realise that she had been carrying it around in her pocket for a number of years.

The Lebanese-born filmmaker, who moved to France at 17 to study literature and journalism, had wanted to find a book to adapt that dealt with love and sex in a frank and revealing way.

“I found Annie Ermaux’s book Passion Simple to be very intimate and powerful. I used to give it as a present to any of my friends who had fallen in love, even though the story doesn’t finish that well. It was a book about love itself - and suddenly I realised it was what I had been seeking. I thought, 'Why not this one?', although it was tough to adapt because it does not have a natural narrative but charts the affair. It was also not that immediately cinematographic.”

Danielle Arbid: 'I like to reveal the desire and grace of a body. I want the audience who are watching the film to project themselves into the situation and to feel it'
Danielle Arbid: 'I like to reveal the desire and grace of a body. I want the audience who are watching the film to project themselves into the situation and to feel it' Photo: Unifrance
It took her two years to reach the start of production with some changes of casting along the way as well as some significant changes for the book which details an amour fou between a lecturer who is a single mother and a Russian diplomat. It was a very personal odyssey for the writer of the novel.

Arbid was fortunate with her choice of leads, both of whom were free spirits and open to the highly charged scenes of passionate physicality. She describes Laetitia Dosch as having “a rock ’n’ roll” personality and was unfazed by nude scenes and Sergei Polunin as the recipient of her attention as the Russian lover exudes a grace and intelligence with a rough edge.

“He seemed to like to put himself at risk - at one point he had walked out of the Royal Ballet, aged 20. He and Laetitia were well-matched and had similar outlooks on life,” explained Arbid. She wanted to see him as the woman does - almost as a fantasy.

Asked if she had considered hiring an intimacy coach for the sex scenes Arbid laughs in disbelief at the notion. “If anything I’m the coach,” she said. “I don’t think there are that many films that are so physically explicit although in the current crisis I think we need to feel and see the touch of others. When I do such scenes it is about anything but sex … it is poetry and painting and movement. It is about how you choreograph it. I like to reveal the desire and grace of a body. I want the audience who are watching the film to project themselves into the situation and to feel it. If I don’t feel anything as the director filming the scene then I know it is not going well and I’ll stop and start again.”

Arbid invented the trip that the woman makes to Moscow to find her lover again. “I think I would have done the same thing in her situation. She just wants to breathe the same air that he breathes. When she sees women in the park walking she imagines that he might have fallen in love with each of them. It is part of the paranoia that you can have when you fall in love.” She created a young son (played by Arbid’s own red-headed boy Lou-Teymour Thion) and added in a female friend not present in the book. “I looked on the book as a wonderful apartment, but I had to furnish it for the film,” she said.

Simple Passion. Danielle Arbid: 'I found Annie Ermaux’s book Passion Simple to be very intimate and powerful. I used to give it as a present to any of my friends who had fallen in love, even though the story doesn’t finish that well'
Simple Passion. Danielle Arbid: 'I found Annie Ermaux’s book Passion Simple to be very intimate and powerful. I used to give it as a present to any of my friends who had fallen in love, even though the story doesn’t finish that well' Photo: Julien Roche/Unifrance

Her “decorative” touches have met with approval. Ermaux has seen the film and told Arbid that she had completely forgotten herself while watching it. “This was great to hear because she lived the story and she writes in a way that is very precise. As a reaction I could not ask for anything more.”

Despite her roots, Arbid doesn’t consider herself either typical or exotic. She says she’s not a good ambassador for the Middle East or Lebanon. Some of her previous films were banned from cinemas in the region on the grounds of depicting “overt sexual content” and threatening “national security”. Her semi-autobiographical Parisienne chronicled a young Lebanese woman’s struggles, loves, and triumphs in the Paris of the early Nineties.

Arbid started out making documentaries, such as Alone With War (Seule Avec La Guerre), which won several awards, including a Silver Leopard in the video competition at Locarno in 2000. Into the Battlefields, her first fiction feature about the Lebanese civil war seen from the eyes of a teenage girl, was presented at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 2004 while A Lost Man (Un Homme Perdu) (also in the Directors’ Fortnight) detailed an odd intimacy between a photographer and an amnesiac man, set between Jordan and Lebanon.

At the moment she has plans to remake Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fear Eats The Soul in Arabic and set in contemporary Lebanon. Also in the offing is a commercial comedy (Isabelle Huppert is one of the stars touted) as well as an adaptation of a novel on the theme of politics and a ministerial hostage crisis.

“The three of them are all very different because I like to switch genres,” she said, noting that there are common “family” threads in her work.

A Simple Passion is available from Friday 5 February from Curzon Home Cinema

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