Love, sex and family values all a tangle in My Shortest Love Affair

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film review

Emerging out of the awkwardly quotidian flow of “My Shortest Love Affair” are two human lives in transformation. They are marvelously rendered, fully realized personalities embedded in a murky social milieu, blundering through a bad relationship that doesn’t make any sense at all, so deeply adrift in their own subjectivity that even their moments of revelation are more dreamlike than clarifying.

Which is, in fact, rather a lot like real life — though whether it makes for a good movie will depend on your appetite for stream-of-consciousness plot arcs full of subtly implied art-house narrative symbolism.

As plots go, it’s intriguing enough (and superficially in the vein of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset”): Two formerly youthful lovers have an apparently chance encounter 20 years later in Paris, and spend an evening catching up over wine. Before long they end up back in the sack — and promptly thereafter she is on the couch, pregnant, Skyping with her new-old lover as they make plans for their next reunion and a new life together as parents.

Patrick Mimoun and Karin Albou play former lovers who meet again 20 years later.

Luisa — played convincingly by writer-director Karin Albou — is a moody, literate, swooningly gorgeous Parisienne stuck in an unfulfilling career involving manuscripts and an elegantly condescending boss. She lives in a cozy apartment with her cat, and the two poles of her life — the workaday indignities of the office and the quiet, unchanging sanctuary of her home — are linked by the Boulevard de Clichy’s sleazoid strip of sex shops and late-night storefronts. Her ennui as she drifts to and fro along this corridor forms an almost palpable cloud of cliché, deepened by the lurid neon signs reflecting in dirty puddles of water.

Charles, a successful novelist played by Patrick Mimoun, appears at first glance to be a smashingly handsome and accomplished Gallic catch, from his popped collar and eight-o’clock shadow to his glamorous expat day job as a professor at Columbia University. He’s charming, funny and accomplished. He also made his name writing raunchy novels of his sexual exploits and gets off on dirty talk in bed. Charles wants to do the right thing, but he’s as much a prisoner of his self-created life as Luisa.

As such, Mimoun does a fine job showing us a pathetically horny, self-absorbed midlifer stuck in a prolonged state of career-driven adolescent regression — yet who is capable, at critical moments, of breaking through his entrenched solipsism and stepping up to the plate.

The real pleasure of “My Shortest Love Affair” is the realism of this mismatched couple’s efforts to make it work. Their subtitled dialogue could have been cribbed from your own book of love, right down to the misunderstandings and misinterpretations that they mutually ignore as they determinedly follow whatever argumentative train of thought they’ve set in motion.

And argue they do. It almost immediately goes to hell after he returns to Paris to be by her side. She can’t handle his raunchy bedside manner, he’s dismayed by her preference for Mahler to set the mood — “church music,” he calls it. They break up repeatedly, and they keep trying again, because they do want to do the right thing, for each other and for their child.

As a work of cinema, Albou’s latest film (she previously won accolades for “Little Jerusalem” and “The Wedding Song”) is impressionistic and very European — obsessed with sex, but rendering the sexuality completely mundane. Albou spends much of the film naked, beautifully pregnant, in bed, and deep in an existential tangle with her hopeful, frustrated lover. It follows no logic except the relentless forward motion of the clock and calendar. It skips over things that would make an American audience think twice — was that chance meeting in Paris actually a case of stalking? Did Charles really threaten to hit Luisa prior to storming out of the room?

In documenting the play-by-play of two very ordinary people navigating the profound transformations of parenthood, their almost anonymously normal lives become hallucinatory. Their subjectivity becomes helplessly deterministic. They grope and stumble half-blind through repetitive episodes — attempts at lovemaking, arguments and conversations, career angst and cohabitation troubles — but never quite break through. Mostly, they’re just trying to keep up.

It is this film’s Jewish content — entirely absent except for two instances — that finally clarifies its overall weakness, with the deliberate sense of artful distance and fragmented perception resolving as simply confused and even desultory.

It surfaces first about midway through, when Charles and Luisa argue over whether the baby names they’re considering are too Jewish. At this point Gefilte Joe and the Fish’s novelty tune “Take a Walk on the Kosher Side” pops up incongruously in the soundtrack, failing both as humor and as juxtaposition. It happens again, to slightly better effect, at the film’s conclusion, with Frank Zappa’s “Jewish Princess,” a hilariously randy send-up of sexual stereotypes that could imply a happier future for the unlikely couple.

Happy future or not — rarely, if ever, do we come up above the subjective surface of their lives. And even as we struggle to understand the choices they make, we are forced to consider the awkward, unlikely circumstances that we normalize every day in our own lives.

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is J.'s digital director. He can be reached at josh@jweekly.com.