Simple Comme Sylvain / The Nature of Love: Cannes Film Festival 2023 Review


Runtime: 110 minutes

Written and directed by: Monia Chokri

Actors: Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Magalie Lépine-Blondeau, Francis-William Rhéaume, Monia Chokri, Guillaume Laurin

By Sarah Manvel

The French title’s sense of the word ‘simple’ is that of uncomplicated, not stupid. However there’s plenty of stupidity on display in this film, though little from the part of Sylvain (Pierre-Yves Cardinal, having a wonderful time) himself. He is a contractor, a down-to-earth working man, shaking his head in dismay at the shape of the summer home Sophia (Magalie Lépine-Blondeau) has bought. Sophia is a philosopher in Montreal, teaching night classes to mature students while waiting for a faculty job. Her partner Xavier (Francis-William Rhéaume) also has a life of the mind, in fact so much of one he and Sophia sleep in separate bedrooms. They joke to each other about surviving an apocalypse and Xavier says that as he can’t even change a light bulb he would obviously be one of the first to die. This is not what every woman wants to hear, not even a woman who is happy to seriously discuss who is her favourite dictator (the guy from Turkmenistan, if you wondered). But Sophia was happy, or at least she thought so, until Sylvain invites her out for a beer, and then for a smoke. And then guess what happens.

Writer-director Monia Chokri (who also plays the part of Sophia’s best friend Francoise, an overwhelmed mother) is interested in exploring what happens when a woman who’s been ruled by her mind is suddenly, and overwhelmingly, ruled by her body. Sylvain is a solid guy – kind, charming, romantic and absolutely dynamite in bed, and it’s made clear that his sudden passion for Sophia is as much of a surprise to him as her sudden passion for Sylvain is to her. But even after the first shock of getting laid passes, Sylvain is all in, and seriously so, and Sophia hardly knows what to do with herself. On the other hand, no one reaches their forties without a strong helping of baggage. Xavier’s father has Alzheimer’s and this is upsetting his mother so much she starts pressuring Sophia to have Xavier’s child; she has the names all picked out. (Quebecois cinema’s commitment to solid parts for women of a certain age continues to delight.) Sylvain is smart but not well-educated, curious but not much travelled. His mother’s obsessed with National Enquirer-style conspiracy theories (UFOs and two-headed-baby sort of things), his brother’s a meat-head, his sister-in-law a hairdresser and his cousin has had an incredible amount of plastic surgery. Sophia’s much wealthier family are no prizewinners either; her brother Oli (Guillaume Laurin) is an exhausting performance artist with a parade of insufferable girlfriends, and her mother is a snob. Sophia spends dinners with Sylvain’s family wondering if anyone will ever talk about ideas again, while Sylvain spends dinners with Sophia’s being ruthlessly picked apart as a pro-death penalty racist. And since the movie is entirely from Sophia’s point of view, we are supposed to be sympathetic with her sensibilities and as contemptuous of Sylvain’s people as she is – or tries not to be. This tips the tables unevenly and is a serious flaw.

It’s made clear Sylvain is prepared to put up with quite a bit in order to continue to enjoy the delights of Sophia’s body, but whether or not Sophia will do the same is the question. In a lot of ways this is a French-language version of “Take This Waltz,” Sarah Polley’s excellent (and also Canadian) movie about a woman leaving a steady but boring marriage for a hot working-class man. But the people in Ms Polley’s movie were all in their early thirties, when life still has more flexibility to be casually reinvented. In your forties no one travels that light on their feet. The night classes, where Sophia tells her students what philosophers from Socrates to bell hooks thought about love, are a delicious metaphor, but philosophy can only do so much. Especially when it’s clear to the audience, if not the characters, that Sophia is hardly blameless here. 

But Ms Lépine-Blondeau makes Sophia, in her own way, as out of her comfort zone as Sylvain more obviously is, although no one could ever describe her as uncomplicated. And none of this description makes it clear how genuinely funny the movie is! The flirting hits all the right notes of being charming, sweet, naughty and fun, and even the bickering between Francoise and her pain-in-the-arse husband is entertaining instead of insufferable. The movie looks great, Guillaume Laflamme’s costume design does most of the heavy lifting on the class issues, and the fact that the third act fizzles out almost doesn’t matter. It’s important to be reminded that your way of life is not the only one, your choices aren’t the only ones, and also that your choice of partner is one you have to reaffirm constantly, lest that love slip into separate bedrooms and away. At the Cannes Film Festival Ms Chokri made a sweetly pointed speech about changing the definition of genius away from being an artist who makes good work to being someone who makes others feel good about themselves. Certainly everyone in her movie desperately wants to feel good about themselves. And no one can say they didn’t try their best to do the same for others, either. The question is just whether that best is good enough. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s