This film was a surprise. I’m going to Paris in just over a month and I want to polish up on my French. So I thought what better way than to watch a few French movies? I stumbled across ‘Q’ by Laurent Bouhnik whilst browsing for new releases. I had never heard of it. It was rated R18+ with a warning that it included scenes of ‘real’ sex. And given that I am familiar with the ground breaking films of Catherine Breillat (Romance, Fat Girl and Anatomy of Hell) I was immediately intrigued.

Now, after watching it, I am very impressed. And yes, it does contain real sex. In fact all of the sex is real – and explicit – but I would not call it pornographic. To me it’s a mature and honest look at the complexities of sexual desire (and thankfully it passed the Australian censor uncut).

First a spoiler alert, because I reveal the plot.

The story is about sexual desire and the way the various characters understand their own desire and negotiate realising it. It focuses on two couples through the primary agency of Cécile (played bravely and brilliantly by Déborah Révy).

Deborah Revy

Cécile is sexually adventurous and something of an exhibitionist, however she is suffering from a period of sexual boredom with her sometime partner. She attempts to reignite her sexuality through a series of risky encounters. The second couple form part of a larger group of friends. In their case the girl has been raised by very conservative parents and is reluctant to to consummate her relationship with her boyfriend. Through this device the film explores the sexual desires of both the various female and male characters. But far from being a film about erotic fulfillment it is really about sexual frustration. There are a number of explicit scenes (fellatio and hand jobs) that are stopped midpoint. In one scene Cécile’s boyfriend does not respond to her massaging his penis and pushes her away. In another scene they have sex (and yes, the penetration is real) and she complains that she feels nothing.

This is why the film is not pornographic, despite the explicit sex, because it is not about masturbatory arousal. In fact in many ways this film is anti-erotic. Any arousal is short lived by the emotional reactions.

To me this is what is needed: an intelligent and honest film about sexuality, with all its complications. I fundamentally do not understand why such an important topic is only ever alluded to, especially in Anglophone cinema. Trust the French to deal with sexual desire with sensitivity and intelligence.

In many ways this film is a feminist film, as much as it can be when directed by a man. In fact the more direct and simple ‘male’ desire comes in for some criticism. At the same time female desire is never simplified. In fact it is presented as complex and contradictory. Nor are the women, or men, ever victims or perpetrators. In many ways it is Cécile who is the predator and sexual tease. In one scene she invites a stranger she meets on a ferry to meet her for sex and forcefully pushes him down to her vulva for cunnilingus. Interestingly it is this scene that was used for the French DVD cover, which was too explicit for Anglophone sensibilities.

It is not a perfect film. I found the sub plot of unemployment to be confusing. Cécile’s boyfriend gets himself into some trouble, but it never clear why. Obviously such aimlessness is meant to be a narrative device to further unsettle the viewer, but it doesn’t quite work.

Anyway, bravo to the director and especially the cast. Laurent Bouhnik is never exploitative and Déborah Révy does an excellent job playing the transgressive Cécile. She is totally believable and I think she is an actress to keep an eye on (she has done more theatre than film and is still young). It takes a great deal of commitment to play such intimate and explicit scenes (and to act whilst being fucked – which is much harder than acting and walking at the same time).

So, I highly recommend this film. Let’s hope that Anglophone cinema matures enough to be able to handle sexuality with such intelligence and frankness.