Hollywood Reporter Berlin Review

Actors Sara Forestier and James Thierree duke it out in Jacques Doillon's Berlin Panorama premiere, in which a budding couple engages in a bizarre form of physical therapy.

BERLIN — First there’s a tete-a-tete, and then there’s a knee to the nuts, in Love Battles (Mes seances de lutte), veteran auteur Jacques Doillon’s latest tale of amour fight, in which a budding couple engages in a bizarre form of physical therapy, pounding each other in the face before they decide to pound each other in the bedroom. Two parts rough foreplay and one part coitus uninterruptus, yet as chatty as a French film can be, this initially engaging exercise grows tiresome by its midpoint, even if stars Sara Forestier and James Thierree throw themselves into the struggle with an energy usually reserved for Skinemax or WWE SmackDown, but rarely for an art house movie.

Indeed, the two actors deserve beaucoup credit for their intense and draining performances, not to mention their fierce and, at times, acrobatic sexual stunts. While anyone familiar with Forestier (The Names of Love) knows that she’s capable of perfectly playing a scene a poil, and usually by a film’s second reel, theatre-performance artist Thierree (Total Eclipse,Prospero’s Books, and also the grandson of Charlie Chaplin) is a particular discovery here.

Both of them are highly convincing in a movie that ultimately fails to convince, and even becomes a bit of a turn-off despite the ample flesh and nonstop booty bouts. Thus, Battles will likely go the route of recent Doillon efforts like last year’s Me, You and Us, with limited Francophone distribution and TV sales, although with some auteur-core marketing a la MichaelWinterbottom’s 9 Songs or Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy, it could potentially be carried to wider markets.

The plot is awfully simple: an unnamed girl, She (Forestier), arrives in the countryside to handle her recently deceased father’s estate, and crosses paths with caretaker, He (Thierree), a sort of love interest with whom she once tried to get it on. Distressed by her dad’s death and the iffy relationship she has with her siblings, She takes refuge in her daily conversational ping-pong with He, via several extended dialogs filled with Doillon’s usual floweriness (“You came her to despise pleasure”), until they start getting downright dirty (“You used your boner to ward me off”).

For reasons that only the French could fathom, He decides to push She into a radical therapeutic exercise whereby they engage in a form of light brawling/heavy petting that gets more and more violent with each session (the original title is a pun that translates to “My Wrestling Sessions”). Before long, the film slides into one long and endless scuffle, with He forcing She to come to terms with her daddy issues, and She trying to get into He’s pants, all the while jabbing at his uber-ego.

It’s like an Eric Rohmer movie starring Hulk Hogan and Beth Phoenix, if those two were also horny intellectuals who could quote Proust while trading off piledrivers. And soon enough, the piles get driven harder and harder until clothes are ripped off, belts are unfastened and, naturellement, some mud is thrown into the mix, with the body blows turning into well, blows, plus lots more, in the film’s extended NC-17 finale.

This could all be written off as risibly pretentious – and that often feels like the case — if it were not for Forestier’s and Thierree’s investment in their roles, with the former delivering her lines and slugs with gusto, and the latter using his circus-trained body to literally bop his co-star into the wall, when he’s not bopping her elsewhere. It’s a crazy whirlwind of a performance piece, one which Doillon and D.P.’sLaurent Chalet and Laurent Fenart capture with soft and well-framed HD imagery, turning the serene provincial setting into a steel cage match of sex and chagrin.

Production companies: Doillon & Cie, Groupe 2
Cast: Sara Forestier, James Thierree
Director, screenwriter: Jacques Doillon
Producers: Daniel Marquet, Jacques Doillon
Directors of photography: Laurent Chalet, Laurent Fenart
Production designer: Anais Romand
Costume designer: Rachele Raoult
Editor: Marie de Costa
Sales Agent: Doc & Film International
No rating, 103 minutes

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