Fine Line Features’ decision to mistranslate Frédéric Fonteyne’s Une Liaison Pornographique as An Affair of Love for American distribution might seem like a cowardly capitulation to election-year prudery or a pre-emptive move to prevent the film from being shut out of Blockbuster’s foreign-movie section. But after viewing Fonteyne’s thoughtful, provocative film, you’ll probably agree with me that the English title is more apt than the deceptively spicy French original.

Screenwriter Philippe Blasband re-examines a question posed by Bernardo Bertolucci’s once-controversial 1972 Last Tango in Paris: Is it possible to sustain a purely sexual relationship? Blasband’s protagonists, who never exchange names and are identified in the credits as Her (Nathalie Baye) and Him (Sergi López), initially hook up because both fantasize about indulging in a taboo erotic activity. (Like their names, this practice is never specified.) In interviews conducted years after their liaison begins, their memories of how they made contact vary. He says that he answered her ad in a swinger publication and sent her a photograph; she claims that she placed her ad on a Web site and never received a picture from him prior to their first encounter.

They meet in a Paris cafe and, after exchanging a few words, repair to a nearby hotel where she has booked a room. After satisfying their desires—Fonteyne’s camera discreetly stops at their door—they plan to meet again the following week. Gradually, their erotic connection evolves into something more complex than scratching an itch. In a change of routine, they make love “normally” and, having done so, become emotionally vulnerable—even while maintaining their rules about refusing to exchange personal information such as address, job, or marital status. Bypassing the deceptions and maneuvers of seduction frees them to be unguarded with one another. But accidental encounters in their hotel with a dying old man (Paul Pavel) and, subsequently, with his despised but adoring wife (Sylvie Van den Elsen) darkly foreshadow what the future might hold for them. With their one-afternoon-stand transformed into a passionate attachment, the pair must decide whether to risk a committed relationship.

A finely calibrated chamber piece, An Affair of Love showcases two extraordinary performers, neither of whom looks or behaves like a movie star. Baye (The Return of Martin Guerre) gives herself totally and without vanity to her character. Her willingness to exploit the tracings of time in her face and neck—something few American screen actresses would dare—enhances her creation of an attractive, mature woman whose controlled exterior masks unfulfilled passions. Two extraordinary shots alone justify the Venice Film Festival’s Best Actress prize that she received for her work. In the first, the camera tracks her as she walks along a crowded sidewalk after the initial tryst, subtle smiles of fulfillment illuminating her face. In the second, a parallel tracking shot taken after the pair have made “normal” love for the first time, Baye’s emotional confusion over the profound feelings that this experience has awakened finds expression in unexpected tears. I’d be hard pressed to cite a more striking example of virtuoso screen acting than what Baye achieves in these moments—without words, in flight, and surrounded by crowds.

López partners Baye with gallantry and sensitivity, especially in the intimate lovemaking sequences, which demand that the performers invest total trust in one other. Like Spencer Tracy or Jeff Bridges, López is an artless, unnarcissistic actor who makes the most ordinary reactions, even something as hard to feign as listening to another person, seem genuine. Like Baye, he attains his finest moment in a dialogueless public scene: Fearing that she has decided to end their affair and realizing that he has no way of contacting her, he follows Baye into the Métro in a fruitless attempt to track her down. His ability to project his character’s desperation as he searches through the congested underground maze of tunnels displays powers of concentration that few actors possess.

Formally, An Affair of Love is elegantly crafted. Especially remarkable is Virginie Saint-Martin’s camerawork, which manipulates color to juxtapose the poles of the lovers’ secret world—the cool blues of the cafe where they always meet and the passionate reds of the hotel corridor. However, in a film as spare as Fonteyne’s, even the smallest contrivance stands out. The narrative is framed by monologues in which the protagonists address an unseen interviewer’s camera. This device is never explained, let alone justified. Who is interrogating them and for what purpose? How could anyone have known about their anonymous relationship? (The most intriguing aspect of these scenes is how different Baye and López look from the way they appear in the flashbacks. Her severely styled blue-black hair makes her seem more pinched and is a dramatic change from her previous softer, more flattering light-brown coiffure. He’s grown a goatee and seems heavier and more thick-faced than in the earlier sequences.) I also found several details puzzling: Apparently, the couple engage in unprotected sex—an unlikely oversight given their cautiousness in arranging their escapade. And there’s a rather risible gaffe in the cafe sequence when the pair first meet: Baye

somewhat shyly asks López whether he’s smooth or hairy-chested, but only a sight-impaired person could fail to notice the tufts emerging from his open shirt.

As Her and Him indulge in “normal” intercourse for the first time, one of them self-reflexively observes, “Sex in movies is either heaven or hell, nothing in between.” An Affair of Love concentrates on the in-between that constitutes common erotic experience. Watching ordinary people making love, with occasional fumbles and aches, rather than idealized screen gods and goddesses in the throes of heaving, orchestra-backed passion, compels us to reflect on our personal knowledge of the connection between desire and affection. Eliciting this response is no small achievement. Despite its spareness, or perhaps because of it, Fonteyne’s film is a milestone in the cinema’s exploration of sexuality. CP