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Consent (Consentement)

Extraordinary French drama based on a real-life story questions the limits of consent, freedom of expression and transgression without lapsing into sexphobic cliches - from the Official Selection of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


The year is 1985. Vanessa Springora (Kim Higelin) is a beautiful, extremely intelligent and precocious 14-year-old living in Paris. Boys and girls of her age listen to The Cure and party. She reads Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and can engage in a profound literary conversation with any adult. “She easily outshines me”, boasts her proud mum (Laetitia Casta). She becomes infatuated with 50-year-old writer Gabriel Matzneff (Jean-Paul Rouve), a pearly-eyed, handsome, seductive and famous French writer of Russian background. At first, he is very caring. He allows Vanessa to make decisions at her own accord, and take her time with sex. She feels empowered by his love, convinced that she’s his muse and muse and only source of inspiration. She dismisses her critics: “So many famous writers had younger lovers”. Her devotion is such that she threatens to take extreme measures (including suicide) should her mother attempt to break up their magical bond. The desperate parent abides, and even grows fond of the her unusual son-in-law (who happens to be older than her). Both Higelin and Casta deliver harrowing performances.

A couple of years pass. What seemed like the greatest love of all gradually descends into something far less romantic. Gabriel’s lifestyle is far more licentious than Vanessa anticipated. At first, she rejects rumours that her “boyfriend”, who promised to marry her, is seeing other women around her age. Then she decides to investigate his demeanour. She reads his most secretive writings, kept diligently under lock and key. What she finds is repulsive and potentially criminal. Gabriel never refutes the veracity of the facts when challenged. Instead he gaslights Vanessa, claiming that she’s hysterical and insensitive. He mocks feminism and insults the young woman and her mother.

The sex scenes are very realistic. At first they are vaguely moving, before morphing into a sinister power game, entirely controlled by Gabriel. He dictates the rules, demanding that Vanessa undresses at cue, subduing and forcing her into fellatio at his convenience. He enjoys seeing a spark of fear in her eyes. It is her youth and her vulnerability that he finds most arousing. He boasts on television that his lovers never go past the age of 20.

Our protagonist eventually musters the courage and rids herself of the toxic and abusive relationship, supported by a kind young man much closer top her age. But Gabriel has one final trick under his sleeve: he publishes a book with all the sordid details of their intimacy. This is one final attempt at legitimising and perpetuating his ownership over her body, while also ridiculing and punishing his former lover to the wider public . He is convinced that impunity will prevail, aided by his fame and powerful connections (he claimed then-President Francois Mitterrand amongst his friends). Vanessa is left battered and mortified, and a mental breakdown inevitably ensues.

Consent is a sexually frank movie that questions the limits of freedom of expression and transgression. Is it acceptable for an artist to degrade his lovers in order to achieve titillation and inspiration? Is ok for literature and film lovers to derive voyeuristic pleasure from the graphic portrayal of sexual intimidation? Is it admissable for a male artist to weaponise his artistic creation in order to sadistically punish women? These reflections resonated with me because I am and a great admirer of sexually subversive, unapologetic French artists from roughly the same time, particularly Serge Gainsbourg and Jean Eustache (neither one was a sadist and a paedophile, however both vigorously challenged the limits of seduction).

But not all is doom and gloom. More than three decades later, Vanessa puts her experience to pen and paper in order to mitigate the everlasting suffering caused by Matzneff’s grotesque and exploitative books detailing their sex life, and his deeply misogynistic views of a lover who dared to abandon him. And filmmaker Vanessa Filho turns his memoirs into a film. Consent is a literary female revenge movie, and one that’s gripping from beginning to end (this impeccable biopic justifies every single one of its 125 minutes of duration). What the film fails to mention is that Gabriel Matzneff is still alive (now aged 87), and he has never been charged for his crimes (France’s statute of limitations meant the case was dismissed). I hope this film shows at his local cinema, and that he walks past the theatre and sees the huge posters on his way to buy his his morning baguette.

Consent just premiered in the Official Selection of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 14-11-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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