Curiosa is a shallow bit of French period erotica, sometimes visually compelling but devoid of much insight.
Loosely conceived and freely adapted from the photographs and the correspondences of 19th-century French couple of Pierre Louÿs and Marie de Régnier (née Marie de Heredia, also known by her pen-name, Gérard d’Houville) depicting their vehement, taboo-shattering love affair set against the Parisian social codes and norms of the epoch, Lou Jeunet’s Curiosa most cleanly reveals its nature and intent in its very premise and name. As indicated via an opening title card, “curiosa” was a popular term among the collectors of the era which might have referred to “an object, a book, a photograph with an erotic characteristic.” With this in mind, it shouldn’t surprise many to find that Jeunet’s film doesn’t necessarily go any further than standard French erotic fare, both predictable and, in its middlebrow taste and tenor, intended to forcefully grab the attention of a bourgeois audience and to satisfy their usual peeping needs and pleasures. In other words, Curiosa lives up to its title’s definition: it’s merely a filmed fetishized object of trivial eroticism and exoticism, and little beyond that superficial bid at soft “shock.”
Following the story of a seductive, hypersexualized gigolo, photographer, poet, and writer, Pierre (Niels Schneider), and his novelist mistress, model, and muse, Marie (Noémie Merlant) — who was forced into marrying the impotent, “poor cuckold” Henri de Régnier (Benjamin Lavernhe) to pay her father’s debts — the film flirts with many familiar clichés revolving around a toxic love triangle, one which later multiplies when Pierre’s Algerian debauchee, Zohra (Camélia Jordana), and Marie’s sister, Louise (Mathilde Warnier), occasionally step in and out of the narrative. Ostensibly, with Curiosa, Jeunet intends to make a study of notions of sexual liberation, one’s individual liberty, and the equality of expression between men and women for such innermost passions and desires — two notable scenes include one where Pierre and Marie put on each other’s clothes, and another where Pierre opposes Marie’s attempt to take a nude picture of him despite the opposite being old hat. But rather than expand on this psychosocial line of inquiry, such ideas remain gravely underserved as Jeunet is too busy littering the film with excessive, steamy scenes of nudity and shallow salaciousness in which the characters have little to do beyond constantly posing for the camera, exchanging bodily fluids, chasing each other around decorated rooms, expressing jealousy toward perceived sexual rivals, or constantly blabbering and philosophizing about their naïve fantasies.
Truly, it’s almost impossible to see, feel, or read anything profound into a film that’s so pleased with only mere voyeurism and exhibitionist spectacle. Curiosa, in true manipulative artsploition fashion, ornamented as it is with superficially chic imagery and superfluous “adult” content, fails to ever challenge our expectations, problematize its drama, or even to suggest any deeper interiority in its characters. Indeed, the character of the film is in complete contrast to the work and art of Louÿs and de Régnier, who crucially were interested in exploring the most hidden emotions and repressed desires of their human subjects; Jeunet is instead only obsessed with asking her characters to repeatedly put their naked bodies on display, showing little interest in anything beyond such fleshly sights. In fairness, Curiosa is specifically about a time and a society where people were primarily concerned with outer decency while entirely ignoring any latent instinct toward decadence, and such an angle might have made for a more complex film, but Jeunet deals too little with this aspect for it to much register.
But if — despite the facile intellectual work on display — Jeunet still manages to render her debut, theatrically-inclined feature into something stands above its inferior mainstream counterparts (think Sylvie Verheyde’s recent Madame Claude, for instance), it’s entirely due to her light directorial verve and notable sensitivities. which lend Curiosa a considerable amount of mystery, delicacy, and consistency in mood and rhythm (but that’s not to diminished the captivating charm and chemistry between Merlant and Schneider, which rise above the sagging material). Jeunet’s glossy visuals and sleazy-style lyricism, frequently inspired by La Belle Époque aesthetics and art nouveau décor and designs, imbue this fin de siècle erotica with a beguiling allure. But it’s not enough to save Curiosa from its chief transgression: too much body with not enough brain, full of nakedness but unable to meaningfully flesh out any of emotions or ideas.