A French Family’s Sexual Awakening

Nathan Duval, Stephan Hersoen, Leïla Denio, Mathias Melloul, and Valérie Maës; Melloul with Leïla Denio. | MPI HOME VIDEO

As a teenager in the mid-‘80s, many of the sexual images I was exposed to came from softcore films on late-night cable. The broadcast of these naughty but never explicit midnight movies prompted invitations for same-sex sleepovers and the erotic fumblings that go hand-in-hand with that sort of titillation. Many of these films, I suspected, were edited hardcore movies. And yet, I preferred the less explicit versions, which, in the safety of a suburban living room, reliably prompted both fantasies and wet dreams.

These softcore films were, in fact, typically unremarkable, and most of the titles have long since evaporated from my memory. But the warm and sticky nostalgia I have for those films –– and those sleepovers –– returned when I saw Jean-Marc Barr and Pascal Arnold’s tender fuck film, “Sexual Chronicles of a French Family,” now available on DVD.

This sexy comedy, accurately titled, is full of sensual intimacy. It had a blink-and-you-missed-it run at midnights at the IFC earlier this year, and yet, it is best suited to the small screen. The film follows the trajectory of most of the softcore movies of my youth — a simple plot that alternates between scenes of characters talking and scenes of them fucking.

Romain (Mathias Melloul), a horny teenage virgin, laments that everyone is having sex but him. He becomes even more distraught when his mother, Claire (Valérie Maës), is called to his school after he is suspended for filming himself jerking off in biology class. Still, Claire is not ashamed, but instead oddly sympathetic regarding her son’s behavior. She uses the incident to shatter her family’s silence about sex and encourage them to open up about their erotic passions.

Romain begins a romance with Coralie (Adeline Rebeillard), a classmate. Marie (Leïla Denio), an adopted daughter, has a hunky boyfriend, Cédric (Grégory Annoni), who makes love to her outdoors. Claire’s son Pierre (Nathan Duval) is involved in a ménage a trois with both a guy and a gal. And her aging father-in-law, Michel (Yan Brian), pays Nathalie (Laëtitia Favart) for sex. Claire and her husband, Hervé (Stephan Hersoen), communicate more about their own sex lives.

The sex scenes in “Sexual Chronicles of a French Family” are lengthy and shot lovingly, the camera practically caressing the attractive actors’ naked bodies. In a recent Skype interview, Barr explained the DVD is the “sensual” version of the film. A “sexual” version — four minutes longer and showcasing erections and penetration — is unavailable in the US.

Barr said he and Arnold made the film to “explore the sexuality of the characters as an important part of portraying their characters — have them communicate through the physical act.” He continued, “We went into the sexuality of the character in a real way. We wanted the actor to explore their sexuality through the evolution of the character.”

In several instances, the sex on screen, Barr explained, is not simulated. In Annoni’s sex scenes, he noted, “his energy cannot be faked.”

Though an actor himself, Barr declined to take a role in the film –– though he would have been perfect as Hervé –– because, he said, “I didn’t want to make a film where Jean-Marc Barr was fucking. In terms of the message of the film, that would be egotistical.”

Still, he acknowledged the selfish aspects of sexual pleasure.

“Everything we do is egotistical,” Barr said. “Sexuality is a place you communicate without words. It’s a spiritual thing. But every moment is egotistical. Love is one of the most egotistical experiences there is.”

And the filmmaker has no qualms about discussing his own sex life. Though he grew up in 1970s California, “We didn’t talk about sex,” he confessed. “I was totally Catholic.” Lyle, the sexually ignorant character Barr played in his 2000 film “Too Much Flesh,” also co-directed by Arnold, was more a chronicle of his sexuality, he explained.

“Society was dictating not to talk about it,” Barr said. “When you control the sexuality of someone, you control them completely.”

The gay activism underway by the ‘70s, he said, helped liberate attitudes.

“Society was deformed,” Barr said. “Catholics controlled people for hundreds of years. Your body is the only thing you have to rebel. Sexuality is where you have the freedom of tolerance.”

For the filmmaker, dealing with his sexuality publically first happened “at 14, at 30,000 feet, watching ‘The Last Picture Show’ on an airplane. When Cybill Shepherd took off her shirt in the swimming pool scene, I thought everyone would see my erection!”

By his 20s, Barr had become comfortable in being sexually adventurous.

“When I left for France, I had my Henry Miller-Jack Kerouac sex and explored taboos,” he said. “Sex is not something you are ever finished with; it gets better if you keep it alive.”

“Sexual Chronicles of a French Family” may be one way for the filmmaker to keep sex alive. Barr said his lovely film is about “the joy of sex for all ages. Anyone can find someone to identify with.

He added, “A family doesn’t have to see it together, but if they do, they will have less of a problem talking about sexuality after it. It demystifies the taboo.”

SEXUAL CHRONICLES OF A FRENCH FAMILY | Directed by Jean-Marc Barr and Pascal Arnold | In French, with English subtitles | MPI Home Video | $24.98