Review: Bodies, sex and little to say in the compulsion drama ‘Simple Passion’

A woman facing a man in the movie “Simple Passion.”
Laetitia Dosch and Sergei Polunin in the movie “Simple Passion.”
(Magali Bragard / Strand Releasing)

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The work of French writer and memoirist Annie Ernaux is having a moment. The adaptation of her abortion novel “L’Evénement” (“Happening”) won the Golden Lion and FIPRESCI Prize at the 2021 Venice Film Festival and scooped up a handful of César nominations. Now, her memoir of a torrid affair, “Simple Passion,” adapted and directed by Danielle Arbid, hits U.S. theaters. French actress Laetitia Dosch stars as Hélène, a single mother and professor who becomes entangled in an all-consuming affair with a married Russian security expert, Alexandre (dancer Sergei Polunin).

The film opens with Hélène describing her obsession with her lover, presumably to a therapist, trying to explain how they met and how her life has been dictated by waiting for him to call, to show up, to grant her the attention and affection she so craves. As we witness the affair unfold in a sexually candid and intimate manner, Hélène always yearns for more from the elusive Alexandre. She ignores her work and her son, as her desire becomes compulsive.


There’s only one way that this relationship was ever going to end, and “Simple Passion” thrusts its way through the ever-predictable motions. All too quickly, one starts to question just what narrative purpose all this sex is serving (aside from the chance to get a closer look at Polunin’s distinctive tattoos). The sex scenes rarely move the story forward, except that we understand that the more sex they have, the more complicated their relationship, nay, addiction to each other becomes.

Perhaps it’s due to Polunin’s opaque performance. He doesn’t bring many nuances to his characterization of the mysterious Alexandre. Dosch does the heavy lifting here, and she’s a lovely, skilled actress, making Hélène’s infatuation seem not just relatable but deeply humane. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t dig deep enough to tease out the contradictions that make this relationship so troubling and yet so appealing to a professional and independent woman like Hélène. There is potential to say so much more about sex, love, partnership, feminism and shifting sexual mores across cultures, but “Simple Passion” lets the bodies do the talking, and after a while, they run out of things to say.

‘Simple Passion’

In French and English with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: Starts Jan. 28, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica