Credit: Music Box Films
by Justine Smith Featured Film Horizon Line

The Nature of Love — Monia Chokri

July 3, 2024

Actor-turned-director Monia Chokri’s The Nature of Love opens with a philosophical debate. In a brown-toned home, inflected with ember and golden highlights, old friends discuss the question of romantic love. Children scream in the background, and wine is being spilled as they speak frankly and intimately about the many subjects romance touches on marriage, fidelity, sex, and compatibility. The conversation flows from personal to academic, remaining firmly in the realm of theory. On the drive home from the dinner party, philosophy professor Sophie (Magalie Lépine-Blondeau) and her husband Philipe (Francis-William) gossip about their friends. Their conversation is easy but guarded as they compare their relationship with those around the table. They seem to speak around the fact that they’ve settled into a routine that threatens to be outright boring.

It’s not long, though, before Sophie’s entire life is upended. She drives north to the couple’s newly acquired cabin to meet with a local handyman to assess the work that needs to be done. When she first meets Sylvain, he’s a haze — backlit and obscured by cinematographer André Turpin’s camera. He’s just a voice; a speeding freight train of slang, anglicisms, and grammatical inconsistencies. He’s telling her the house is a mess with an exasperated casualness that overwhelms her completely. She has to take a pause — he brings her outside and has her scream into nature. They go for drinks, share secrets, and hook up. The sparks are overwhelming.

Structured in two halves, the first part of The Nature of Love follows Sophie falling into lust with Sylvain. They sneak around, they make hopeless declarations of commitment, and they decide to be together. Sophie breaks it off with her husband, and film’s the second half follows the newly formed and seemingly mismatched pair as they navigate the pitfalls of being together.

While appealing outside of Quebec (the film won the Best Foreign Film at the 49th César Awards), the film cleverly plays on broad regional stereotypes as a means of conveying its odd-couple romance. Sophie and her life represent a well-educated class from Montreal. Her clothing and language reflect urban living; her accent and dress reflect a more global French, inflected with Parisian aesthetics and rhythms (though still unmistakably Canadian). In Quebec, regional dialects are often huge signifiers of class. Compared to her, Sylvain’s voice is intoned with the round, sharp “Os” and affected emphasis on certain imagined syllables. His grammar is chaotic and poor. He dresses like a lumberjack and lives like one too. He’s a man from les régions, who feels out of place in the big city. The relationship between Sophie and Sylvain points to a cultural (and political) gap that has long-divided Quebec. How can urban and rural life find common ground if they’re so different. If love can’t unite us, what can?

The Nature of Love uses Sophie’s role as a professor to inject various competing philosophies of love into the film. Quoting Plato, Schrödinger, bell hooks, and Jankélévitch (among others), the complexity of romantic ideas pushes up against the base simplicity of desire. Just north of her 40th birthday and uncertain about her future, Sophie sees Sylvain — a man who, upon their first meeting, tells her, “Love should be simple,” an antidote for complexity. She imagines him as a salt-of-the-earth fuck machine; a superficial beauty with little to nothing rolling beneath the surface. Of course, those assumptions are wrong. Sophie’s class and her perceived elegance don’t make her more discerning than those around her. Her mind constantly overflows with romantic fantasies shaped by her family life and her studies. They often have very limited bearings on reality.

In many ways, The Nature of Love, can be understood through the lens of the comedy of remarriage. As defined by Stanley Cavell in his book Pursuits of Happiness, the genre that proliferated in the 1930s and 1940s Hollywood centers the comedic plot on a married woman with a narrative driven to get the main couple back together. Quebec actress Magalie Lépine-Blondeau embodies a role akin to the elegance and desperation of stars like Jean Arthur and Irene Dunner. Known for her work in TV, notably the sitcom Sans Rendez-vous where she plays Sarah, a nurse-sexologist in her mid-30s, Lépine-Blondeau treads a line between absurdity and glamour as Sophie. Like the films that come before, The Nature of Love puts into question the notion of “keeping up appearances” in a modern world that seems to be rapidly changing.

Indeed, what is love in our modern world? In the 1930s and 1940s, in films like It Happened One Night or Adam’s Rib, marriage was thrust against the subtext of the economic pressures of the Great Depression and changing gender roles. Chokri grapples with those same questions for our modern life; how do people from different economic classes find and love each other. What is the purpose of marriage within our apocalyptic climate crisis? How have the inroads of feminism over the past 50 years transformed our understanding of man and wife?

Chokri’s storytelling, despite its absurdism and eroticism, often seems to air toward cynicism. Final act homages to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and the strained relations among different classes point to a lack of resolution and a cyclical boredom doomed to grip even compatible couples. Yet, for all the competing tangents, most of the film’s philosophical groundings reach toward the transcendent. Love can be broken down, analyzed, theorized, and deconstructed, but it doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding, well, the nature of love. There is certainly an aspect of novelty, insecurity, and the proliferation of the species at work, but that only offers a partial truth.

The Nature of Love‘s second half feels weaker than its first, perhaps because it indulges in Sophie facing a harsh reality. The comedy ends up broader, and her strain to keep up appearances is more labored. Chokri’s film doesn’t necessarily lose its step, but it becomes more pointed and meaner. The director becomes an equal opportunist when it comes to mocking her characters for their bad taste, pathetic breakdowns, and bullishness. It’s frustrating precisely because it bursts the bubble on Sophie’s elaborate sexual fantasy. But narratively speaking, it is the most natural direction for the film to take, one that will force her to circle back around to her earlier life choices. And viewers have responded: in Quebec, The Nature of Love was a critical and commercial success. It was one of the highest-grossing Quebec films of last year in the province, and this resonance speaks to Chokri’s ability to create films that speak to a critical and generous audience. The Nature of Love works as well as it does precisely because it embraces the classical roots of comedy, while applying the specifics of Quebec’s class system and surveying the anxieties of contemporary life.

DIRECTOR: Monia Chokri;  CAST: Magalie Lépine Blondeau, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Steve Laplante, Monia Chokri;  DISTRIBUTOR: Music Box Films;  IN THEATERS: July 5;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 51 min.