Every Wednesday, a divorced bartender and an am-dram actress meet at his dingy apartment for no-strings sex. But curiosity finally prompts him to follow her and begin a perverse campaign to undermine her marriage.
The Obscene Publications Act has not been reviewed since the dawning of the 'kitchen sink' era in 1959. Yet since 1995, when Sheptonhurst Ltd (the owner of this country's largest sex shop chain) and the Shropshire porn distributor, Prime Time, challenged the BBFC's right to censor hardcore, a wind of change has been gently blowing (as it were) over British attitudes to cinematic sex.
Typically, however, it has taken a Frenchman to spice up our smut. The setting for this self-consciously scandalous melodrama is slap-bang in the social realist tradition. But you can't imagine Ken Loach or Mike Leigh urging their stars to put more ooomph into the oral scene.
With such films to his credit as La Reine Margot and Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train, Chereau is known for his ability to make the theatrical feel filmic. However, his gift all but deserts him in this English-language debut, which combines Hanif Kureishi's titular novel with the short story, Nightfall.
Eric Gautier's vibrant camerawork and the animalistic passion of manipulative coward Rylance and insecure dreamer Fox initially disguise the problem. But once Rylance breaks the once-a-week lovers' tacit anonymity, the action rapidly collapses into verbosity and stylised naturalism.
Much will be made of the graphic sex scenes. But what's more scandalous is the way Chereau wastes two such compelling characters to concentrate on the bogus exchanges between Rylance and Spall's cab-driving cuckold, which stand in stark contrast to the wordless lust of the blush-makingly intense couplings. The commitment of Fox and Rylance to recreating such passion is to be applauded. But their sessions are the only true thing in a film ironically devoted to the ideas of role-play and self-awareness. It's clearly a censorship landmark, but little else.
Intense, courageous and committed. But this treatise on role-play and responsibility is as rooted in life as the average episode of EastEnders.