Homme au bain (Man at Bath) (2010) is a strange and surprising film for Christophe Honoré to have made, but it’s a compelling and sometimes fascinating experience nonetheless. A 70 minute (s)experimental work that Honoré appears to have tossed off (ahem) fairly quickly, the movie charts the post-break up experiences of a couple, Emmanuel (François Sagat) and Omar (Omar Ben Sellem), when the latter departs for a trip to New York, telling Emmanuel to have left their Gennevilliers apartment by the time he returns. The film then splits into a double narrative, following Emmanuel as he shuttles between various lovers in Gennevilliers, and Omar in New York where he’s promoting his new film with its star (Chiara Mastroianni) and begins a liaison with a young Canadian actor.
“In my films, I have given an increasing amount of space to language,” Honoré says. "This time I wanted to film bodies. The sculpted, mistreated, exaggerated body of Emmanuel’s character. And the easy-going, pleasurable, mixed-race bodies of his successive lovers." This may explain the air of self-consciousness that pervades Homme au bain; often, the film feels more like material for a thesis on the gaze or the haptic than anything else. Taking its title from the famous Gustave Caillebotte painting, Homme au bain obsesses over the bodies of its cast members, and serves up scene after scene of "tactile" imagery. The film also follows in the (dis?)honourable tradition of Catherine Breillat in Romance (1999) and Anatomy of Hell (2004) by casting a porn star in a lead acting role. Here it’s Sagat as Emmanuel, an odd presence to be sure, variously fearsome and vulnerable, exploiter and exploited. “You look like a sculpture… But you’re bad art, you’re kitsch,” Emmanuel is told (by a character played by Dennis Cooper, no less), in one of those breathtakingly frank exchanges at which Honoré’s cinema excels.
The tone of the film is uncomfortably intimate, and Homme au bain is also a movie that seems to invite all kinds of autobiographical readings. This is most notable in the New York scenes (shot on a mini DV camera by Honoré), where the line between fiction and documentary is totally blurred, in particular by Mastroianni’s presence (she’s appeared in every Honoré film since Les Chansons d’Amour) and the fact that the film that Omar is promoting appears to be Honoré ’s last film, Making Plans for Lena.
Easily Honoré’s most sexually provocative work since Ma mère (2004), the sex scenes here have a tendency to turn disturbing and violent, or else merge with the details of domesticity. Sometimes the effect is plain tiresome and sleazy, but, luckily, the director’s deadpan wit and insouciance come through at unexpected moments, especially in a hilarious sequence in which a minor character returns home to find Emmanuel comparing posteriors with his girlfriend - and doesn’t bat an eyelid. Also noteworthy is the use of music: there’s a little Charles Aznavour and a version of Kate Bush's “The Man With The Child In His Eyes” performed by three of the protagonists, while, early on, Sagat gets a spectacular solo dusting/dancing scene to “How Insensitive,” a sequence that almost rivals Romain Duris’s encounter with Kim Wilde’s “Cambodia” in Honoré’s Dans Paris (2006). And the striking final image is surprisingly poignant, encapsulating the air of melancholy, loneliness and regret that pervades the film and its characters.
Honoré's recent films have not fared well at the hands of UK distributors with both the likeable La Belle Personne (2008) and the stunning Lena remaining unreleased. Homme au bain certainly won’t be the movie to change that, and it’s unlikely to have much life at all beyond the festival circuit. Still, this intriguing and entirely unexpected little film is worth seeking out.