The opening shot of “Sexual Chronicles Of A French Family” is handheld footage of a young girl in class, her eyes darting back and forth as we hear a teacher discuss the day’s lesson. She briefly looks into the shaking camera before slipping her hand underneath her skirt. She wears no undergarment, as we see her fingers passionately move up and down, the camera becomes still as she pleasures herself. If you’re looking for “Snow White And The Huntsman,” you may be in the wrong theater.
It’s this video that starts a chain reaction amongst an upper class French family, itself fraught with tension. With matters unspoken between Mom, Dad, Grandpa, their three handsome sons and one adopted daughter, it's implicit but unaddressed: their home has been invaded, conquered, taken over by sex, whether it be the bag full of condoms Dad constantly brings home, or the conspicuous motel visits of widower Grandpa.
This is killing the family’s youngest son, Romain, who sees the video that starts the film, part of an elaborate in-school challenge posed by members of the opposite sex. Film yourself masturbating, during class, and it’s the new millennial love letter. At eighteen, he feels that he should be sexually liberated, but he’s the only one in the family who isn’t receiving attention from the opposite sex. So when he unzips and begins recording himself, sloppy and obvious enough to be caught by a teacher, it’s more of an act of impotent self-expression.
The angered teacher brings his mother in to discuss this matter, but it only brings to life the fact that sex is such a tremendous part of everyone’s lives under her roof, yet unaddressed by all. Despite the educator’s ruffled feathers, she laughs. Romain deals with suspension, but his mother only smiles when she realizes he’s only pleasuring himself to pornography and flirting with a girl who has seen the video. Creation is important to this young man, so much so that once he reunites with his mother following the news of the suspension, he immediately requests the phone back. She complies, understanding the New Privacy: modesty is now a dependent on context. Later Romain will drop his pants for one of the video’s viewers, but immediately hide his member.
It’s Romain’s mother who is spurred to curiosity by this video. Taking another son to dinner, she asks directly about his sex life. She has a heart-to-heart with Grandpa, revealing his dalliances with a working girl. And, more importantly, she opens up to her husband again. When he is confused by her newfound sensuality, she immediately invents an affair she’s been having, clearly indulging in the erotic power play she’s engaged with, describing every minute detail to provoke extreme jealousy in her husband. He cannot resist.
In case you were wondering, “Sexual Chronicles of A French Family” is an extremely explicit affair. Directors Jean-Marc Barr and Pascal Arnold mostly (probably?) shoot simulated sex sequences, but the clever camera angles and obscured sexual organs only highlights the intensity of sexual encounters. It’s a film with several bared breasts and buttocks, but the majority of the heat is generated by fingernails on bare backs, curled toes in the air, intense, interlocked eyes. They’ve also, transparently, hired an extremely attractive cast, but they don’t shy away from the inelegant details of sex, the crumpled up tighty-whities between a man’s ankles, the taboo suggestions at inopportune moments, and most specifically, the sexuality implicit in the clumsy, very non-sexual act of changing clothes in front of a lover.
This is a pretty smart way to deflect from the fact that there isn’t much of a thought in this film’s head. Running a scant seventy-nine minutes, the majority of the film's runtime is devoted to hot and heavy lovemaking of a fairly photogenic nature. Ideal viewing for couples who enjoy subtitles (there should be no others), but without the nutritional value to examine what all this sex means within the context of their society. Within the characters' spacious, multi-layered home, they seem distant from the inner city where Romain attends school. Despite one taking on a decidedly working-class lover, the tension fraught in such a relationship never becomes an issue.
There’s a moment late in the film where one character announces to the rest of the family that they are bisexual. It’s a squandered moment as far as dramatic potential, as the film seems squeamish on the issue of same-sex dalliances despite a few moments of brief flirtation. But the response from the family is, essentially, “So?” It’s a sweet, understated reminder of how sex is ultimately a sign of self-expression, whether it be on camera, with multiple partners, isolated in a parking lot, or simply discussed. [B-]