Anaïs decided to buy the flowers herself. Then she was 20 minutes late.
As if in droll homage to the iconic first sentence of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. DallowayCharline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s Anaïs in Love opens with its titular heroine (Anaïs Demoustier) hurrying across Paris with a bouquet of spring blooms. When Anaïs arrives at her fifth-floor apartment, she’s surprised to see her landlady waiting for her. Blaming her inability to cohabitate with a man named Raoul for being behind on rent — “As a couple, it’s too tough. Don’t you agree? — Anaïs cheerfully begs for a few more weeks to pay and, before receiving an answer, catches the time and dashes out to her next event, flowers in hand. “Thank you for everything,” she raves, kissing the stunned madam twice on the cheek. “It’s adorable of you.”
Bright and fizzy as a French 75 cocktail, Anaïs in Love is about a 30-year-old woman looking for meaning while failing to adult — a familiar story these days, but no less worth telling in original ways. And Bourgeois-Tacquet’s first film does exactly that, offering a twist of zest to the tired tale of a vivacious young woman pursuing romance with an older man. A literature student perpetually putting off her dissertation, Anaïs rebounds with Daniel (Denis Podalydès), an anxious academic type decades her senior. Their sex scenes are uncomfortable, but not because Daniel’s a predator or especially sleazy. “I feel intimidated,” he explains sheepishly when having trouble finishing the act. “I’ve never had an affair with a younger woman.” Anaïs more intrigued by his adoration than anything else, a distraction from her ongoing drama with Raoul and it seems her impatient thesis advisor. Daniel is a man with a capacious kitchen who offers plates of strawberries. He is a man who gives her a place to stay when she turns her flat into an Airbnb. In short, he is a man of means, not meaning.
But what if this man also happens to have an exceedingly sexier common-law wife? What if this woman, a novelist named Emilie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), replaces him in the couple, and Daniel is tossed from the affair with the breezy ease of a stubbed-out Gauloises? When Anaïs comes across Emilie’s face cremes in Daniel’s apartment, she surveys them with a tender curiosity. Reading Emilie’s autofiction and growing more and more enamored, Anaïs accosts the writer on the street outside her campus. “What a coincidence! I’m reading one of your books,” she gushes. “I love your style. It’s dazzling. We seem close emotionally….”
As ebullient as she is, at times, insufferably self-absorbed, Anaïs follows Emilie to a literary retreat off the coast, sprinting in strappy sandals from one bucolic spot to the next, aiming to seduce her. Much more grounded at 56, if aiming to be “carefree,” Emilie exudes a kind of timeless sex appeal of a Marguerite Duras protagonist (Duras only recently acknowledged for her fiction’s lesbian subtext). “Who are you, Anais? Where did you spring from?” she asks in the woods outside the symposium. “What do you want from me?”
It’s pretty clear what Anaïs wants, and that Emilie’s more than willing to give it to her. The romantic stakes of the film are blissfully free of moralizing, as they are entirely free of internal grappling about coming out as bisexual. In this movie, identity labels matter about as much as age discrepancies — which is to say, not at all. Anaïs in Love has been compared to Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, and for good reason. Both follow a smart but restless female protagonist wrestling with her love life. But while Trier’s film ultimately falls squarely in drama territory, Bourgeois-Tacquet insists on a levity that can flourish in even grave circumstances. Is Anaïs escaping to the arms of Emilie because her own mother (Anne Canovas) is suffering from late-stage cancer? Perhaps, but thankfully the film never pathologizes the attraction between the two bibliophiles as anything but chemistry.
Like Carol (2015), starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, the connection between Anaïs and Emilie seems entirely natural, and the younger lover is the one more willing to throw up her hands at reality and pursue the relationship no matter what. In a world that often makes middle-aged women disappear, these 40- and 50-something dams hold virtually all the power. But unlike Todd Haynes’s sumptuous melodrama, Anaïs in Love revels less in the inevitability of a broken heart and more in the heart’s resilient, if mercurial, nature. “Misfortunes are part of the plan,” Emilie tells her gamine suitor during a hike to the beach. “That’s what life is.”
Like all the best romances, Anaïs in Love doesn’t suggest that being “in love” necessarily means being with a person forever. The headiest, and best, infatuation may only prove possible when that connection is fleeting, and the memory endures long after the affair. Emilie — not pregnancy, a PhD, or any male prospect — proves the only event in Anaïs’s life to give her a sense of direction, to keep her attention for months at a stretch. In this way, the film overtly rejects the cumbersome heteronormative romantic arc — getting the guy, or the job, doesn’t matter if you don’t want either.
“Anaïs, are you real?” ends one of Emilie’s emails read aloud toward the end of the film — and despite Anaïs’s hyperbolized whimsy, her longing feels relatable. What the heart wants may be an inconvenient surprise, and, as this movie celebrates, surprises can happen in life’s midseason.
Anaïs in Lovedirected by Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet (2022), is currently in theaters and available to stream starting on May 6.