Cannes 2023 review: The (Ex)perience of Love (Ann Sirot & Raphaël Balboni)

The (Ex)perience of Love constantly maintains an element of surprise, which prevents it from being overly predictable.”

Love is the eternal artistic language. Since the dawn of literature, we have seen countless attempts to not only portray the indescribable feeling of being in love, but also uncover the meaning behind the romantic bonds we form, and why many end up with one particular person over others that have populated their past. This is the central thematic narrative behind The (Ex)perience of Love (Le Syndrome des Amours Passées), in which Belgian directing duo Ann Sirot and Raphaël Balboni explore these ideas through the story of Rémy and Sandra, who have been happily married for some time. But after their inability to conceive a child reveals that they are experiencing what is termed “past lover syndrome”, they quite literally have to revisit their previous partners and engage in one final carnal act with each of them, in order to be cured of this peculiar ailment and allowed to continue with their lives. A charming but provocative comedy that stirs quite a reaction in all the ways that make for a truly exceptional work of socially charged commentary, The (Ex)perience of Love is a surprising and tender examination of a relationship called into question by a bizarre turn of events, which becomes the impetus for this terrific and utterly delightful romantic comedy. The film understands its audience and what we desire, taking us on an engaging and very funny journey that reveals as much about these characters as it does the directors themselves, who place so much nuance into every frame of this wonderful film.

On a thematic level, there are many ways to portray romance; with the sheer diversity available when it comes to the genre, it is not surprising that we have essentially run the gamut in terms of how love is portrayed artistically. The (Ex)perience of Love takes a more conventional approach, albeit one that still finds originality in the smaller details, which work in contrast with the broad strokes that make it slightly formulaic but still deeply entertaining. Conceptually, the film does have its moments of striking originality, almost to the point of skirting around the edges of controversy – the idea of a couple having to engage in orchestrated infidelity does carry the risk of being too flippant or vulgar, but with self-assured filmmakers like Sirot and Balboni (who bring their own perspective to the story) at the helm, it becomes intellectually and emotionally invigorating. The story itself is wonderfully profound, with the narrative exploring the process of using the past (in the form of previous lovers) to remind the protagonists of why they fell in love with each other in the first place. As the film weaves through their encounters with their past lovers, we find qualities missing in each one of them, but which are present in the two protagonists, who are essentially quite different, but in a way that embodies the adage that opposites attract. The film pieces together fragments of these characters, both in terms of their individual quandaries and their relationship as a whole, unearthing many powerful ideas in the process, which gives this otherwise quirky romp an immense depth, immediately distinguishing it from the overly formulaic romantic comedies that it often seems to be actively referencing throughout the narrative.

The (Ex)perience of Love tends to follow the guidelines established by previous entries in the genre, and often plays like a contemporary version of a classic screwball comedy. As is often the case with this specific style, the impact rests on the performances, which essentially define the extent to which we can connect with this story. Lazare Gousseau and Lucie Debay deliver striking portrayals of the main characters, oscillating between humour and pathos with an ease that is difficult to manufacture, indicating the strength of their performances. Their chemistry is remarkable, which is one of the fundamental components of such a film – and there is never a moment where it feels like either of them is being wasted, or any sense of imbalance between the two, making The (Ex)perience of Love a perfect two-hander, with the supporting cast (which includes scene-stealing performances from the likes of the perpetually delightful Nora Hamzawi and Florence Loiret Caille) adding even more charm to the film. Most importantly, they manage to temper their performances to match the tone of the story that surrounds them – every emotion in this film feels genuine, which comes through in the perfect collision of the directors’ strong screenplay and the actors’ soulful performances. They fill the screen with a profound joyfulness and unexpected complexity, from which many of the film’s most striking ideas are formed, immediately setting it apart from any similarly-themed stories that may not have as firm a grasp on the human condition as this film.

The premise of The (Ex)perience of Love is quite absurd from an objective point of view, with the fictional syndrome being questionable in its plausibility to say the least. Yet this was intentional, and indeed part of the charm of the film – Sirot and Balboni were certainly not striving for realism by any means, and instead sought to challenge and playfully subvert our understanding of these themes through careful examination of a married couple forced to re-evaluate their choices in order to save their relationship, and in the process actually make it stronger. It is a comedy that understands its audience and that what we expect from contemporary romantic comedies is a blend of originality, humour and genuine emotions, all of which exist in abundance here. Sirot and Balboni use their dual perspective to curate a series of moments, some of them outrageously funny and others tender and more melancholy, which add layers of depth and bring even more meaning to the concepts that drive this film. Most importantly, we find that The (Ex)perience of Love constantly maintains an element of surprise, which prevents it from being overly predictable – the happy ending is guaranteed, but the journey to get there is far more interesting than we initially expect, which elevates this film and gives it such a unique sense of identity and authenticity. Delightfully irreverent and genuinely heartfelt, this work consolidates Sirot and Balboni as truly exceptional filmmakers whose blend of humour and pathos is unforgettable and remarkably refreshing, especially for a genre driven by cliché as much as the romantic comedy, which they openly challenge in their journey.