Jérôme Reybaud’s film 4 Days in France opens in darkness. Then, with the glare of a smartphone, a man’s sleeping profile comes into view. Wearing only a pair of white briefs, he’s left undisturbed by his partner, who is sneaking off at dawn without a word.
Immediately, the film makes clear what it’s interested in. Namely, the way our phones have become tools through which to yearn for and connect with one another. And that’s before we follow the phone-wielding Pierre (a sly if angelic-looking Pascal Cervo) using Grindr to find men to fuck and suck as he makes his way through the French countryside, unaware that his partner is in pursuit, using that same app to track him down.
Where American queer cinema remains all too beholden to romantic pairings, 4 Days in France joins an increasingly fascinating roster of French filmsincluding Alain Guiraudie cruising noir thriller Stranger by the Lake, Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s sex club date flick Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo, and the recent pair of Yves Saint Laurent biopicsthat put queer sexual intimacy at the heart of their narratives.
But Reybaud was clear on one thing: he didn’t want to represent the queer couple on screen. That wasn’t to be contrarian, but because he finds that specific type of relationship hard to capture in film. Instead, we witness a long drawn out reunion that’s preceded by a series of meetups that test what it is that had kept Pierre and his boyfriend together all this time.
This road trip-cum-cruising story, titillating as it may sound, is less focused on staging steamy sex scenes (though there are those) than in examining the intimacies that we create when we meet with strangers. During his four day trip Pierre meets, among others, a young man who daydreams about what his life would be like as a gay man in Paris and an old bar owner who ends up rebuffing his advances.
But he also interacts with a woman he gives a ride to after her car breaks down, an old private tutor from his youth who now runs a bookshop he stumbles upon; and even a thief who eventually runs away with his briefcase.
Reybaud, who ironically does not own a cellphone nor use Grindr (his longtime partner, who does, served as an unofficial consultant in both regards), was curious to tell a story about these ephemeral connections we make with people we know very little about.
“It’s easier to talk to strangers,” he shared. “You know you won’t live with them. You can be frank. You can be open. You can say some secrets. Because it has no consequence. It’s a place of intimacy and immediate freedom and connection. Having sex with strangers in the woods at nightthe fact that there’s absolutely nothing between you (you don’t know the age, the names, etc.)makes the contact, I don’t know, deeper. Sometimes it can be described as ‘love.’ But it’s a love of just 15 minutes.”
Instead of casting cruising or hooking up via Grindr as an aspect of gay male culture that needs to be redressed, Reybaud finds beauty in it. He’s particularly interested in exploring how a different sense of place affects one’s desires. Wistfully, he points out that gay men had always found the most beautiful spaces in which to cruise, citing the grounds outside the Louvre as but one example.
As Pierre moves from the bustling city of Paris to the countryside and later still to the snow-capped Franco-Italian border, so do his preferences as he rifles through men’s profiles. It’s always unclear what he wants, whether an anonymous fuck in the woods, a tender hook up in a childhood bed, or a silent blowjob in a stable. “I wanted to catch what you can feel when you are on the road,” the director shared. Who are we when we’re outside the world we’ve made for ourselves and free from the people who help shape us into who we are?
4 Days in France asks us to see Pierre’s road trip as an attempt at finding new ways to interact with others outside of the prescribed relationship he’s left behind. There’s a sense of freedom he feels when he calls up a number he finds in a road stop restroom and a feeling of endless possibility when he flirts with a straight guy he meets on the road who stays at the same motel he’s at. He yearns for the touch of a stranger.
That latter scene in particular is the closest the film gets to staging what would otherwise be mistaken for a gay porn setup. After all, isn’t a gay guy bedding a straight bro one of the most exhilarating gay fantasies around? Reybaud admitted that getting the cute straight fool around with the all too eager (and horny) Pierre would’ve been just that: a fantasy. “It would be just for me, for my pleasure,” he added.
“A lot of French gay movies use straight actors to play gay characters,” he continues. “I don’t have a political speech about that (I really don’t care) but sometimes I feel that they just wanted to these straight guys having sex. Just out of pure fantasy on their part.” Yet he still wanted to represent the sexual connection these two strangers had made. So instead of giving us the sexual fantasy we thought we were getting, both men head to their respective roomsconveniently located next to one anotheronly to find that close proximity just as erotically charged as if they were laying in bed together.
The homage to Jean Genet’s groundbreaking short film, Un chant d’amour, is undeniable. Like in that prison-set 1950 film, actual contact may be impossible but that doesn’t mean a shared experience is out of the question. Genet’s men made do with a straw and some smoke, giving new meaning to a blow job. Similarly, Pierre and his new friend communicate solely through knocks and moans, ultimately staging the steamiest episode in Reybaud’s film. “I was happy to make a movie in which the most sensual and sexual scene was, in fact, the one using nothing but sound, basically,” he beamed.
Don’t mistake these coy moments to be indicative of any sort of prudishness. After all, the film openly shows us discarded condoms on the side of the road, refuses to cut away whenever dick pics are shared on screen, and stages frank conversations about safe sex and sexual preferences (“are you clean?”, “do you swallow?”) that, Reybaud has found, sometimes rattle older audiences more than any hint of nudity.
Bold and sexy, 4 Days in France is a welcome exploration of 21st century queer relationships. It neither romanticizes serial monogamy nor does it glamorize the cruising scene. Instead, Reybaud is quietly pushing audiences to see the two not as mutually exclusive but mutually beneficial. From personal experience, he knows there’s a way to nurture one’s special relationship with one person. “Especially,” he adds, “if you can keep, with Grindr or whatever else, meeting with strangers.”