Love and Bruises, which Lou Ye made during his five-year, government-imposed ban from filmmaking in China, is a tale of l’amour fou set, appropriately enough, in Paris. However, the grand romanticism that usually marks such stories is replaced here by a grimly repetitive pattern of lust and violence which, while often unpleasant to witness, strikes one as a more realistic depiction of desperate and obsessive love affairs. The opening scene plunges us immediately into the high-pitched dramatic register that characterizes many subsequent scenes: Hua (Corinne Yam), a Chinese university student, is begging her French ex-boyfriend to take her back as she stalks him on the street. Her ex tells her in no uncertain terms that they’re over, leaving her alone and distraught. Hua is then literally knocked off her feet by Mathieu (Tahar Rahim), who accidentally hits her with a wooden beam he’s carrying on his job at a construction site. His profuse apologies lead to an aggressive courting, which leads to a first date, which in turn leads to a furtive first sexual encounter that may be an assault on Mathieu’s part, which then culminates in a far more consensual lovemaking session in a hotel room.
The grand romanticism that usually marks such stories is replaced here by a grimly repetitive pattern of lust and violence which, while often unpleasant to witness, strikes one as a more realistic depiction of desperate and obsessive love affairs.
Thus begins the erotic tug-of-war between the bourgeois intellectual Hua and her earthy blue-collar paramour Mathieu. Despite numerous sex scenes between the leads, Love and Bruises oddly comes across as toned down and compromised, even though the film’s locale presumably placed it far from the prying eyes of Beijing’s censors. This neutering begins with the film’s title; while being accurately descriptive, it’s far less provocative than that of the autobiographical novel it’s based on: (Bitch, by Chinese author Jie Liu-falin, whose work has been banned in China). The sex scenes are also very conventionally filmed, lacking the transgressive qualities that would seem to be called for in this scenario. What’s not lacking are disturbing threads of sexual violence, which permeate throughout, from Hua and Mathieu’s first sexual contact, to Mathieu’s frequent jealous rages – which has him hurling epithets like “bitch” at her – to the film’s most queasily and anxiously foreboding scene, an attempted (and possibly completed) rape of Hua by Mathieu’s best friend, and partner in petty crime, Giovanni (Jalil Lespert). Even more stomach-churning is the fact that this encounter is deliberately set up by Mathieu as a test of Hua’s fidelity. This sort of ugly behavior, paired with cinematographer Yu Lik-wai’s gritty and restless handheld, makes for a very un-sexy movie that’s paradoxically full of sex. The escalating intensity of the central love affair – embodied by Yam and Rahim’s impressive performances – simply fizzles in the final frames, leaving us with precious little edifying insights into the underlying cultural, class, and racial conflicts, which are obvious yet dramatically underdeveloped.
Part of Lou Ye: Every Face Is a Mask.