Monia Chokri’s “The Nature of Love” opens by introducing us to 40-year-old philosophy professor Sophia (Magalie Lépine Blondeau) and her husband Xavier (Francis-William Rhéaume), as they enjoy a dinner party with friends. Said friends (one of whom is played by the director) are similarly middle-class progressive types with nice homes and comfortable lives; Sophia’s job in particular allows a strand of metatextual self-commentary in an otherwise predominantly broad and sexy comedy. It is, of course, a cast-iron rule of cinema that if a film opens with a middle-class dinner party, you’re about to see somebody’s bourgeois certainties undermined, and Chokri doesn’t disappoint.
On the drive home, Sophia and Xavier gossip about their friends’ love lives. Supposedly one of the other couples has sex three or four times a week, but also fights constantly. Xavier is of the opinion that a peaceful but sexless life is preferable, which tells us everything we need to know at that point about his and Sophia’s comfortable-as-a-coma marriage, and sets the stage for her subsequent sizzling affair with rough-and-ready Sylvain (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), a smoking hot handyman hired to renovate the couple’s weekend home by the lake.
The film is impeccably cast. As Sophia, Magalie Lépine Blondeau (whom Chokri first directed ten years ago in her hugely successful short “An Extraordinary Person) is wonderful, gifted with great comic timing and a particular knack for telegraphing that sense of someone who knows they’re making a huge mistake, but are compelled to go ahead and make it anyway. That’s handy, since it is perhaps the character’s defining trait.
But it’s hard to imagine Blondeau’s role working as well as it does without the right actor as Sylvain, the kind of guy whose compulsive sexual charm is enough, by itself, to swamp every other more cautious instinct. Luckily, Cardinal has form here, having previously sizzled in Xavier Dolan’s “Tom at the Farm,” as the burly agricultural man’s man to Dolan’s fashionable city boy. Call it screen presence, magnetism, charisma — Cardinal has it.
Another Dolan collaborator (alongside Chokri herself, who had one of her best onscreen roles in the Québecois auteur’s “Heartbeats”) having a ball here is cinematographer André Turpin: In “The Nature of Love,” the camera is an active, antic presence, fond of darting zooms that lend proceedings an ironic gloss of 1980s beer commercials, to entirely deliberate-feeling effect. Playful, purposeful occlusion of sections of a frame through strategically placed objects — car mirrors blocking faces from view, and so on — is both straightforwardly funny and a reminder of other limited perspectives. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it aesthetic that verges on OTT but lands just the right side of kitsch.
Aesthetics also play into the film’s depiction of class difference, which is often ramped up to borderline cartoonish effect, in a way that matches both the larger-than-life camerawork and the characters’ vast emotions. Wardrobe plays its part here: when Sophia first falls for Sylvain, he’s rugged in the kind of plaid shirts beloved of middle-class hipsters in the 2010s. That helps code him as acceptable for her — she’s a snob — in a way that some his later attempts at smartening up signally fail to do.
Female mid-life crises are not explored in this mode of storytelling as often their male counterpart: While the tragedy of the woman who f—s around and finds out is a mainstay of plenty of great literature and cinema, the comedic versions tend to focus on male love rats. Perhaps this is due to longstanding cultural discomfort with female infidelity: Historically, if an unfaithful woman was going to be the lead character, everything had to be treated with a certain gravity. “The Nature of Love” refreshingly centers the female adulterer’s experience, in a richly comic mode.