Canadian writer-director Monia Chokri captures the nature of love in this sexy, romantic study of mixed signals.

Canadian writer-director Monia Chokri captures the nature of love in this sexy, romantic study of mixed signals.

Joyce Glaser reviews The Nature of Love (July 5, 2024), Cert. 12A, 111 mins. In cinemas.

If you read any summaries of Canadian actress and filmmaker Monia Chokri’s (Babysitter, A Brother’s Love) new film, The Nature of Love (Simple comme Sylvain’) you might well think to yourself, ‘been there, done that, seen that.’ That would be your first mistake.

Yes, it is about a married woman who meets a charismatic hot-blooded hunk with a beard and lumberjacket and yes, you have seen everything in that vein from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to All That Heaven Allows. You’ve also seen your fill of “love triangle” films, too, from The Philadelphia Story to Unfaithful. So has Chokri, but she’s found a way to make all that seem like unchartered territory, with a well-cast, sharply observed and entertaining take on the genre.

Sophia (Magalie Lépine Blondea, A Brother’s Love, Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats), a philosophy lecturer, is 40 and has been in a stable, comfortable but unexciting marriage with mellow, thoughtful Xavier (Francis-William Rhéaume) for ten years. Their discussions tend to replicate Sophia’s ruminations of love in her lectures, snippets of which we hear. Significantly, one lecture is on the theme of platonic love, a subject she knows better than most.

The film opens with a typical dinner party at the Montreal home of a set of their friends. Around the animated dinner table are bourgeois, liberal, 40-something men and women like them – including Francoise, played by Chokri – although Sophia and Xavier do not have children. Like so much of the film, this feels like a real dinner party with the sense that all the couples know one another from years of friendship.

On the drive home, and in their separate beds that evening, we learn most of what we need to know about their relationship. They gossip about their friends’ love lives, as if to reassure one another and themselves that they have the ideal marriage. Would you trade having sex four times a week but arguing constantly like one couple, with the serene but sexless life of lovers who live like good friends? Xavier readily admits that he would.

Sophia asks Xavier if he noticed the “incandescent beauty” of the mysterious French guest at the table and asks if he would sleep with her. He does not seem particularly enthusiastic but replies that he might. Xavier is confident enough in their marriage not to ask Sophia if there’s anyone with whom she would sleep with.

Whether or not sex is on her mind at that moment, it certainly is when she drives up to their house on the edge of lovely lake, a romantic hideaway but a fixer-upper in which Xavier has little interest. Sophia gets a quote for the work from a rough and very ready local craftsman, named Sylvain (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) and if the chemistry is not instantaneous, it’s pretty close.

Sylvain drives Sophia back to the cabin from the local pub where he is well known. She awkwardly mentions that she has to get used to being there alone.

‘I can sleep in the car to protect you,’ Sylvain offers. But he doesn’t stay in the car long. They make passionate love on the floor, in the shower, on whatever table is around and in the bed that she is not sharing with Xavier. The sex is somehow both a turn-on and tastefully romantic. This is a woman’s film and what we see is Sophia’s passionate side being ignited.

The more time they spend together, the more demonstrative Sophia becomes, telling Sylvain that she is crazy about him and has never felt that way before. Sylvain agrees and he recites a poem by Michel Sardou, a popular singer who sings love songs like “I am going to love you.” Sylvain goes further, declaring ‘you’ll be my wife.’

As we observe Sophia revelling in the romance and sexual fulfilment that she hasn’t known in at least ten years, we also see her subconscious at work when her background clashes with Sylvain’s and her sophistication, and his lack of it, become apparent.

This is a film where characters actually have parents, best friends, brothers, sisters-in-law, and real lives. Integrating with his friends and family, Sophia downplays the differences between them. Sylvain’s family have not been to university, but Sophia admits her job is just a temporary position teaching senior citizens.

While longing to become a part of this close-knit, child-loving family, the closer the prospect of marriage becomes, the more Sophia expresses judgmental comments about the way Sylvain acts or dresses. The two break up but cannot stay apart.

Sophia, having confessed to her mother and best friend that “it’s not a fling” has passed the point of no return when she tells Xavier ‘I met someone.’ In an emotional scene between them, we observe Sophia evaluating whether she can continue loving Xavier as her best friend, while Xavier insists he loves her like a husband.

What is remarkable about The Nature of Love, is that cliched though the title might be, the film really does capture the nature of love, and all the elements that go into a woman’s decision about the man she wants to call her husband. Sophia might have made one mistake, but will she make another? How do you know?

Because of the way Chokri has balanced the books, we have experienced Sophia’s dilemma and cannot decide. And for that reason, the brilliant ending is so satisfying.

Chokri has borrowed both Cardinal and the talented cinematographer André Turpin from her friend and collaborator Xavier Dolan’s sexy Tom on the Farm – not to mention borrowing Dolan’s first name for Sophia’s husband. It’s a bit of an in-joke, perhaps since Chokri co-starred with Dolan, and Lépine-Blondeau appeared in his film Heartbeats (Imaginary Lovers) in which two friends fall in love with the same man.