Boy meets girl. They fall in love and decide to hook up — for the rest of their lives. But how can they make sure that the flame never dies? Twentieth-century philosopher couple Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir dug into the problem and came up with a few codes of behavior. 1.) Never get married. 2.) Go out with other people and bring them into the relationship. 3.) Work should always precede passion.
Did this stuff work out for them? Very much so, as history attests and as depicted in the part-love story, part-biopic “Les Amants du Flore.”
Sartre and Beauvoir made their way to philosophy’s Hall of Fame by founding the hip/cool school of thought known as existentialism. They dared to defy convention, to reject religion, to scoff at family values and spend most of their waking hours in Parisian cafes and clubs. They were also two-packs-a-day smokers (which Sartre supplemented with a pipe that hardly ever left his mouth), guzzled whisky whenever and were great endorsers of the one-night stand. Though all this may seem tame by today’s standards, in the ultra-conservative, deeply entrenched Parisian society of the 1930s, the pair raised a whole lot of eyebrows.
Generations of philosophy students have identified existentialism with sexual freedom and decadence — conducted in vintage tweeds and pencil skirts — and it’s really no wonder that Sartre/Beauvoir remain so popular. Accordingly, “Les Amants” focuses less on dry intellectual pursuits and more on the complexities and delicious ups and downs of a couple’s relationship.
In the film as in real life, they’re formal with each other; Beauvoir always called her lover by his last name, and Sartre called her Castor (“beaver”), a nickname from her student days. But as director Ilan Duran Cohen depicts, sex and sexual liaisons were very important to them and they experimented with relationship chemistry the way other people try different coffee concoctions. To say they were a fascinating couple would be a colossal understatement; the wonder is that the movie world never turned their 50-odd-year relationship into a love story franchise, with a different film for every period.
Having said so, “Les Amants” lays on the romance a bit too thick at times. Chanel model turned actress Anna Mouglalis plays Beauvoir, and her sculpted features combined with the graceful sensuality that rises from her entire being belie the image of the woman philosopher who was renowned for owning just one dress.
In the film, Beauvoir appears as a spankingly stylish and sexy young teacher, just graduated from the Sorbonne with honors. Ordinary guys keep their distance but smart men fall head over heels for her, and even the excessively cynical Paul Nizan (Vladislav Galard) is alert to her charismatic charm. She is equally attractive to her teenage girl students, and her affair with Lumi (Clémence Poésy), the daughter of a Russian aristocrat, comprises part of a fiery and soul-consuming ménage à trois conducted with a love-sodden Sartre.
The presence of a much younger, capricious woman nearly destroyed the couples’ bond, but Beauvoir poured their story into her first novel (“L’Invitée”) and circumvented emotional disaster by letting the world read all about it. Sartre (played in the movie by Lorànt Deutsch) also wrote of the affair, in the hugely acclaimed “L’Age de Raison.”
The way the couple went public with their escapades (albeit in their fictional works) fueled their own legends, and the movie depicts how adoring strangers would drop by their table at the famed Café de Flore while they worked and/or engaged in lengthy political debates — hoping for a word or a miraculous invitation into their magic circle.
Only one man resists the allure of their cultural celebdom and this is American novelist Nelson Algren (Kal Weber): the one man in Beauvoir’s life who gave her a ring (with which she was later buried) and asked her to wash his socks. He’s referred to here as “the Chicago guy” and, indeed, Beauvoir flies out to the Windy City to see him and hang out in his squalid kitchen like a real wife. But ultimately she remains true to her pact with Sartre and to her fierce conviction that marriage for women means domestic slavery and a systematic dumbing-down of the senses.
Originally made for French TV in 2006, “Les Amants” takes a lot of shortcuts and liberties. Yet it paints the portrait of an incredible couple joined by a fierce desire — not for each other, nor for domestic comfort or even professional ambition, but to live out their lives in pursuit of their ideas. The partnership is worth celebrating.