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A piercing observer in the sublime Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Noémie Merlant plays the eagerly observed in the erotic drama Curiosa (★★☆☆☆), and turns in a performance equally as convincing. Starring as turn-of-the-20th-century novelist and poet Marie de Régnier, Merlant evinces none of the cool reserve that concealed the intense passions of her Portrait painter character. This Marie is brazenly passionate, a joyously liberated woman among a close-knit circle of libertine artists that includes her husband Henri de Régnier (Benjamin Lavernhe) and her lover, the famous poet Pierre Louÿs (Niels Schneider).
For the most part, Henri is unaware of his wife’s yearslong affair with his handsome friend Pierre — despite Marie and Pierre’s very apparent affection, and only token efforts to remain discreet. Pierre even spins their liaisons into published poetry and prose, disguising the identities of all involved. Yet the lovers manage to keep their clandestine relationship to themselves. They do, however, spend a lot of time with a third party not known for keeping secrets: a camera. Avid photographer Pierre likes to shoot Marie nude in explicitly erotic poses, thus leaving a photographic trail that, to this day, still shocks and intrigues viewers.
Marie and Pierre risk being discovered, but Marie seems not to fear the prospect too greatly. Writer-director Lou Jeunet and co-screenwriter Raphaëlle Desplechin give us a sensual, headstrong heroine who gets a kick out of subverting the patriarchal system that saw her parents marry her off to Henri against her wishes. Marie’s a woman ahead of her time, presented in crisp period costumes, her dalliances set to composer Arnaud Rebotini’s vibrantly modern electro-classical score. What the filmmakers don’t give us is a compelling take on how Marie channeled her maverick, carnal energy into her own art or other pursuits. Marie de Régnier, née de Hérédia, published volumes of prize-winning poetry and fiction, some under the pseudonym Gérard d’Houville, but Curiosa doesn’t establish her artistic ambition or professional success.
As watchable a pair as Merlant and Schneider are, the film doesn’t stray far from the limited view of Marie as perpetually horny pursuer of Pierre. (The real Pierre Louÿs was known in his day to socialize with dandys and homosexuals like Oscar Wilde, but Curiosa doesn’t extend its curiosity in that direction.) “Loosely based” on the letters and photos of de Régnier and Louÿs, the story vaguely explores Marie’s intellect and interests — and her agency over her own body, especially for the era, is a beautiful thing to see. But we don’t see her wanting to do or accomplish much outside of sneaking around with Pierre. Did she study, did she travel? Who knows?
The movie likewise limits the dimensions of the other woman most prominent in the plot, proud hedonist Zohra (Camélia Jordana), an alluring Algerian who returns with Pierre from a trip he takes abroad. Of course, in the colonial conception of even this most liberal circle of pre-War Parisians, the idea isn’t that Zohra came to France, but that Pierre brought her to them, for their pleasure.
Introduced at a party where she gives Pierre’s pal a blowjob in the parlor, she is their African sex doll. Curiosa comments on Pierre’s exploitation of his “native” strumpet, but then allows Zohra no purpose beyond exactly that. She seduces Marie, of course, then disappears from the movie. And even their sapphic interlude is played as having more to do with their mutual devotion to Pierre than with fulfilling their own desires — an awkward statement to make in the name of Marie’s sexual liberation.
Curiosa opens Friday, August 13 in select theaters, virtual cinemas and VOD platforms. Visit www.filmmovement.com/curiosa.
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