Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
"Sexual Chronicles of a French Family" (76 minutes) is available via IFC On Demand.
Let's play a game. It's 3 AM and you can't sleep. A channel roulette session with the remote control stops your TV on a certain network synonymous with softcore erotica. Do you: a) Roll your eyes and keep flipping the dial before falling asleep to some warped infomercial?
b) Realize you need something more substantial and order "Chicks Who Dig Odienator 29" off the Adult On Demand Channel?
c) Drop the remote and make a date with Rosy Palm and her Five Sisters?If you answered a, Alex Trebek is here to say "OOH I'M SORRY!!" We've got some nice consolation prizes for you as you leave this blog. If you answered b, I thank for your $9.95, but you will also have to leave this blog. Today's entry is most definitely not your speed. But if you answered c, have I got a movie for you. It's called "Chroniques sexuelles d'une famille d'aujourd'hui" or "Sexual Chronicles of a French Family," and you can watch it in the privacy of your own home. I won't tell, and I certainly won't cast aspersions. After all, I pitched this movie to review here at The Demanders. After discovering the title, and its French origins, my exact pitch to our editor was "Mmmm! FILTH!" So this sinner casts no stones.
Unfortunately, this sinner has issues with this "Chronicles of Labia," the least of which is how to review a movie like this. I could take the high road, but if you've read this far, you are expecting me to traverse the lowest road possible. To review a comedy, one must admit if it inspired laughter. To review an erotic picture, one must more uncomfortably cop to whether it resulted in the upping of a body part that isn't a thumb. In that regard, I respectfully submit that this film didn't do it for me. I expected something a little less squeamish (read: dirtier) than what I got.
"Sexual Chronicles of A French Family" is Cinemax with subtitles, or "Le Çinemax." It has the same frustrating "hide the good stuff" camera angles as your average straight-to-cable softcore knock-off, and the same repeated positions. In its defense, the film does not contain Cinemax's ubiquitous bad boob jobs, the ones so dreadful that they turn breasts into triangles, squares and other shapes nature never intended for headlights. The boob job in this film looks fine. "Chronicles" also has a more intriguing plot than any sex film on cable at 3 AM, though this is somewhat squandered.
Narrator Romain (Mathias Melloul) is an 18-year old virgin who is depressed he has not been deflowered. His older brother, Pierre (Nathan Duval) and his adopted sister, Marie (Leïla Denio), are both sexually active, as are many of Romain's classmates. It's these classmates, specifically Coralie (Adeline Rebeillard), who set the plot In motion. Coralie and friends dare each other to masturbate in class while filming the activity on their cell phones. The resulting film is then reviewed and graded by the others. A graphic, NC-17-guaranteed shot of a character she-bopping opens "Sexual Chronicles of a French Family," promising a Gallic cinema fearlessness that never materializes. When it's Romain's turn, he gets caught by his biology teacher.
Romain's lawyer mother, Claire (Valérie Maes) is called into school, and the headmaster tells the somewhat amused Mom about her son's impromptu biology experiment. This leads her to question not only what the hell is wrong with her son but also whether she and her husband are at fault for not talking more openly about sex with them. Mom sets out to interrogate her adult children and her elderly father-in-law about what they do dans le boudoir.
I suppose for a daughter, talking to Mom about sex isn't a big deal. To a son, however, this is a terrifying prospect. When Claire asks Pierre about his sex life, he wiggles his way out by telling her that he is happy and immediately running off to engage in that sex life, which features several ménage-a-trois scenes, and not the kind you horny readers are considering. These have two guys and a girl, which would be refreshingly open-minded provided the filmmakers weren't so goddamn afraid to show anything explicitly revealing Pierre's bisexuality. (This revelation is handled by a throwaway line late in the film.) Knowing what he's into, Pierre's response to Claire is a lot less dramatic than if my mother asked me how my sex life was. That would result in an Odie-shaped hole in her wall as I ran screaming into the night.
Meanwhile, Marie has found what she describes as sexual bliss with an older bartender. Her breast augmentation, which Romain calls "too big," features in most of the Cinemax-inspired sex scenes at play in "Sexual Chronicles of A French Family." Until late in the film, these characters do not register at all, except as undulating bodies. But some genuinely clever heat emanates from a scene where the bartender describes to a nude Marie what he thinks about while he's pleasuring himself in her absence. He does this while actually pleasuring himself. The look on the actors' faces as they play the scene holds a playful erotic charge that's sexier than any of their coital activity.
In fact, I found myself being drawn more to some of the dialogue between characters than the numerous scenes of rumpy-pumpy employed by its directors. This is the kiss of death for a film whose primary goal is titillation, but it's the only aspect that worked for me. Romain's tearful dialogue with his father is a great scene that provides some emotional context for the scene of his eventual deflowering by Coralie. Claire has a scene that could have backfired, where she talks to her father-in-law about his sex life, but it pays off later in a scene between Claire and his prostitute lover, Nathalie, after he dies in Nathalie's bed. (In a joke too dirty to tell here, Richard Pryor referred to the act of dying during sex as "recycling.")
Claire is the most interesting character in "Sexual Chronicles of A French Family" and her interactions, both sexually and verbally with her husband lend some maturity and honesty to the film. As she examines her aging body, the mother asks if she should get plastic surgery. The father asks her if she fears growing old with him. Her response I'll leave for you to discover. You may also discover that the actress playing Claire looks familiar. If so, you've seen Brian de Palma's "Femme Fatale."Perhaps the only other thing I can tell you about this film is "your mileage may vary." It didn't work for me as a turn-on, but that's a criticism valid only for this reviewer. For me, this kind of cinematic sexual skittishness is like a Twinkie with the cream filling sucked out of it. But you know who you are, and you know what you like. There's a lot of softcore sex in this film, and the participants aren't objectionable. If that floats your boat, you'll get no argument from me. Feel free to go down with your ship.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...