Grade: B-

The original French title of Frederic Fonteyne’s sappily renamed intimate drama was “Une liaison pornographique.” That moniker was far more appropriate, because the whole purpose of the piece is to play upon, and then to undermine, audience expectations concerning a film about an sexual encounter, arranged via personal ad, intended to provide gratification without obligation. (It’s not unlike the hype which attended the initial release of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” which many purchased thinking it would be a risque read and were disappointed to discover was a dense literary masterwork.) Here, the picture deliberately excludes viewers from the first encounters that the couple, played by Nathalie Baye and Sergi Lopez, enjoy in a hotel room–the camera follows them to the door and then lingers out in the hallway as maids roll carts of towels and cleaning supply past–and offers more of the pair’s retrospective discussion of their trysts (via staged interviews) and the conversations that they have in a cafe before proceeding to the room than anything else. Later, the couple will steadfastly refuse to describe the “irregular” forms their relationship took in its early stages, further circumventing any voyeuristic impulse.

Indeed, the film becomes more explicit in its depiction of the “affair” only as the attitude of its participants is transformed from mere lust to friendship and, finally, to something very much like love. And even then, while the scenes of intercourse are certainly presented without apology, they’re also given an air of wry amusement that makes them seem far chaster than the crude cavorting regularly shown in Hollywood pictures. The concentration is always on the development of the relationship rather than on the graphic portrayal of their acts of physical intimacy. And the ages of the couple–they both look about forty, with the woman the older of the two–is unusual as well; ordinarily either they would be much younger, or an older man would be paired with a (much) younger female.

All of which is commendable, of course; but the dry, detachedly observant perspective (along with the intercut interview sequences) tends to give “An Affair of Love” the feeling more of a treatise than a story about real people. This fact is accentuated by the rather pretentious refusal to name the lead characters, who are simply referred to as “He” and “She,” as though they were exemplars rather than individuals. It’s also reflected in the dialogue, which makes the two–especially the female representative–so incessantly reflective and willing to discourse upon their attitudes that they become spokespersons for particular gender perspectives more than authentic personalities. Almost inevitably, moreover, since the picture is quintessentially French in its coolness and rather grim presumptions, the narrative leads to a painful decision as to whether to take the relationship the final step to marriage. The outcome is affected by a chance encounter involving an elderly man who collapses in the hallway outside the two’s hotel room and his estranged wife, which necessarily compels the couple (and, by extension, us) to wonder about the possibility of real happiness through a permanent commitment. And since, as noted, this is a serious French film, with all that implies, the denouement is not all that surprising.

But even though Fonteyne’s film is at times contrived and is probably too deliberately cold, it does occasionally break through emotionally: some of the lovers’ offhanded remarks, both to one another and in their later interviews, show real flashes of personality, and even an incidental character, like the grim, silent desk clerk who seems initially disapproving of the couple’s obvious intentions but gradually grows accustomed to their visits, can give the piece a periodic shot of amusement. “An Affair of Love” doesn’t move the viewer as it might, but neither does it descend to the level of the prurient or the mawkish. While a bit too rarefied for its own ultimate good, it remains an intriguing attempt to confound audience expectations and comment seriously on the differences between men and women. That’s something that’s rare in today’s movies, and it should be applauded even when the attempt isn’t perfectly realized.