A not-exactly-torrid, not particularly romantic “torrid romance,” “Curiosa” takes us back to 19th century Paris, when the camera and indoor plumbing were new, and sexual mores seemed in a mad rush to catch up.
This French melodrama, loosely based on the surviving writings and photos of its two principals, takes its title from a term of the day. A “Curiosa,” an opening title tells us, “is an erotic object or photograph.”
Marie, played by Noémie Merlant ( “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,”), is the oldest of three sisters, and the great beauty of the trio that includes Louise (Mathilde Warnier) and Helene (Mélodie Richard).
Family friend Pierre (Niels Schneider), flirts and keeps them under his lusty gaze, which the sisters, especially Marie, notices.
“Girls to be wed put on a show, like houses for rent awaiting buyers,” she teases (in French with English subtitles). “We can be visited. Boy not every floor.”
All of the “gentlemen” of their acquaintance fancy themselves poets and writers. Pierre’s lifestyle of the idle rich includes photography, “candid photography,” as the old Monty Python sketch winked. Pierre takes photos of nude women, and rakishly makes a point of finishing the seduction that lured them to his studio with sex.
Pierre is what they’d have called “a bounder” or “cad” in Victorian Britain. In Paris, he still flings around the word “gentleman” as if it applies to him. Marie doesn’t pick up on this, as she’s got a crush on him like every other young woman he meets.
But when stodgy, conservative and wealthy Henri (Benjamin Lavernhe) out-maneuvers Pierre when the rake is out of town, Marie is married off not to Pierre, but to one of his many “friends.” And the way the “gentlemen” handle this unpleasantness is for Pierre to have an affair with Marie, mostly at her instigation.
She runs to his arms and his bed. But as she submits to being photographed, she gradually absorbs what Pierre promises to “teach you vices you can’t even conceive.” And trying on each other’s clothes is merely the start.
But as a man who disappears on “travels” and returns with a gorgeous Algerian prostitute (Camélia Jordana), who bandies the idea of menage a trois with Marie and shows off his photo diary of “The Female Posterior” with his pals, whom he also shares his Algerian with, we wonder what Marie will sacrifice in transitioning from “conventional” to “modern.”
Lou Jeunet, who works mostly in French TV, serves up a “Madame Bovary” without the morality or tragedy of Flaubert’s novel. She and her co-writer play up the sex scenes, and although this never quite descends into “a young woman’s ‘awakening'” softcore of the “Emmanuelle” variety, that’s the general direction of things.
Pierre is something of an artist, but as he does nothing with these “candid” shots, it’s really all about sex and the pursuit of it. Marie’s in love, but miserable.
Jeunet is intent on showing a little of the kink of a stodgy belle epoch that wasn’t as moral and unsophisticated as it might have appeared.
The trouble is, that’s a given. Paris all but invented modern porn, Parisians kept their mistresses, Pierre is quick to admit “Of course I have others,” and there’s not enough of the “poor cuckold” Henri or anyone else damaged in this promiscuity to give this story a tragic edge.
It’s all very civilized and oh-so-French. But frankly, for all the posh settings and lovely costumes, all the lovely nudes and copulation, “Curiosa” is a chilly, unemotional drag. And the performances do little to warm things up.
MPA Rating: unrated, nudity, sexually explicit
Cast: Noémie Merlant, Niels Schneider, Benjamin Lavernhe, Camélia Jordana, Amira Casar, Mathilde Warnier, Mélodie Richard
Credits: Directed by Lou Jeunet, script by Lou Jeunet and Raphaëlle Desplechin. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:40