Whether grounded in reality or otherwise, the perception of France as a more sexually liberated nation has proved the driving force behind a wave of French comedies in recent years, and the justification for all kinds of transgressions rarely seen in other national cinemas. Structured around sex, these films typically display characters at the mercy of their own lust. Couples switch partners several times across the same film, men cheat on their wives, women take younger lovers. But where Hollywood romantic comedies for the most part center around a search for a 'true love' which extends beyond physical pleasure, French sex comedies adopt an often decidedly cynical stance when it comes to romance, instead reveling in sexual transgression and duplicity.
As exciting as it might be to witness a popular cinema adopting such a liberal attitude towards sex, especially one at the polar opposite end of the scale to the skittish and maniacal puritanism of the American romcom, the vast majority of these French films embrace a decidedly conservative and prude stance towards their quasi-progressive material. Indeed, many of the jokes and scenarios in these films are specifically set up at the expense of women, and consistently undermine more progressive and tolerant ideas.
Even when one of these films does address a topical and modern idea, it is usually from a reactionary position. In Joint Custody (2017), a man’s wife and his mistress agree to ‘share’ him, but soon find themselves competing with each other for his affection and sexual interest. Far from being ‘just a comedy,’ this film and others perpetuate toxic sexual politics on screen, as two intelligent and otherwise independent women turn on one another.
Of course, the looseness of sexual mores in French cinema is exciting and to be celebrated. Since the early days of the medium, French filmmakers have excelled at addressing the topic of sexual attraction with respect, without attacking or poking fun at characters and situations outside of the mainstream. In contemporary cinema, Agnes Jaoui and Arnaud Desplechin spring to mind as the champions of a sophisticated, non-judgmentally sexy outlook. But this is simply not the case for most of the French comedies that experience any modicum of mainstream success, and it comes as no surprise that this sort of reactionary humor also regularly slips into crude classism and racism
The absence of taboo around sex in French pop culture benefits sexism and greatly confuses feminism, running in neat parallel to the dual-edged outcome of the sexual revolution in 1970s America. Even as sex became less of a taboo subject and women asserted their own sexual desires, the revolution also gave men the permission to sleep around more and care less. If a woman didn’t want to sleep with a man, she was just a square or a prude.
The French sex comedy similarly professes to a kind of sexual emancipation while clinging to shame and a caustic validation of the patriarchy as the structuring principles driving the humor forward. These films hold up a mirror to a world where the male characters still hold all the power over the organization of desire.
This explains why, unlike American romcoms, French sex comedies are not typically aimed at or watched only by women. If that were the case, these films would not constitute such a large chunk of popular French cinema, a genre so lucrative in fact that even respectable stars such as Jean Dujardin of The Artist
(2011) carve out a steady stream of them. Indeed, it is a painful irony that what might look like a sign of equality in fact indicates just how deeply many French people have either internalized or accepted misogyny, in a country where for many the first answer to #MeToo
was a fear of censorship and American puritanism.
Needless to say, these films rarely do sell abroad, so specific are they to their very peculiar culture. When they do travel it is often because they hold the promise of sexual content and have enough arthouse credit to be watched without shame. At first glance, Justine Triet’s second feature Victoria seems to fit that category of French sex comedies perfectly, and its international title, In Bed with Victoria, does not suggest anything otherwise.
Virginie Efira plays Victoria, a woman who seems to have it all. A successful lawyer, she is also a single mother of two, and looks absolutely gorgeous. Career woman, mother, and bombshell, Victoria lives in the sort of bohemian chaos and noise fetishized by outsiders as the embodiment of the French lifestyle, all the while managing to juggle everything without too much trouble. Her life is full of the quirks one has come to expect from French comedies of this kind: she is surrounded by eccentrics, from the friend who may or may not have stabbed his wife, to the ex-husband who makes a career out of his fanfiction blog; from the men she meets online to the ex-drug addict who becomes her kids’ nanny.
All of these characters prompt ludicrous situations shot in a style that comes closer to that of mainstream French comedies than to the hand-held, edgy aesthetic seen in Triet’s phenomenal first feature The Age of Panic (2013). Yet what would simply be a default setting in a mainstream French film here becomes an essential element of the film’s humor. The nonsense Victoria is faced with is presented in a blunt, matter-of-fact way that always keeps viewers on their toes: should we laugh or cry?
In most comedies featuring a sane central protagonist confronted with oddball characters, the hero isn’t truly alone: the viewer shares their despair, and has enough distance to laugh at the situation. In sitcoms, the laugh track indicates the presence—either real or simply implied within the show’s structure—of an entire audience laughing with the central protagonist. In both the British and American versions of The Office, characters can actually look into the camera at their audience, and roll their eyes at their co-workers’ stupidity. Victoria, on the other hand, is utterly alone when she faces her problems, and she is understandably freaking out.
As the film progresses, she finds herself struggling to hide her sadness and keep going with her life. Just as in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001)—another film about an awkward blonde woman trying not to embarrass herself all the time—much of the humor derives from the heroine’s total social ineptitude. But unlike this classic American ‘chick flick’ or its imitators, Victoria does not delight in the suffering of its main protagonist, and instead follows through the logical consequence of her situation: Victoria has a panic attack. She stops working and stays at home for months, staring into space. She tries to work things out with a psychiatrist, even a palm reader. Needless to say, the neurotic characters of French popular cinema never usually break.
In light of Victoria’s crisis, the boisterous attitude of the people in her life—the same archetypes so endearing to the makers of the mainstream French sex comedy—are suddenly revealed for the extremely oppressive and smothering forces they can be. Finally, a French sex comedy acknowledges the psychological toll of all the demands put on its female protagonists, on Bridget Jones and her ilk, and on women in general. In particular, the usual men of the French sex comedy are finally shown for the sexist oppressors they so often are. What appeared at first to be a style and world familiar from the mainstream romcom is slyly undermined, poked at and subverted.
This feminist tonal shift recalls the brutal change in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016). At first accepting the sexist ways of the men she is surrounded with in her daily life, Michele (Isabelle Huppert) starts perceiving them differently after she is brutally attacked. Verhoeven, forever the provocateur, pushes her internalized misogyny to the point where she only truly revolts when her attacker tries to kill her.
But Verhoeven’s film does not evolve in the same register as Triet’s, and their conclusions are quite significantly different. While Michele’s salvation in Elle is a radical departure from the world of men into a beautiful but elusive female utopia, Victoria opts for a less allegorical solution. In a moment of recognition similar to Paul Schrader’s favorite film ending, Victoria finally realizes that the love and care she craved was in front of her from the start. Having veered away from the formula so beautifully, the film elegantly returns to something more familiar but just as respectful and feminist as all that came before.