Fifteen year old Sabine (Julie Delarme) is a maths prodigy. She applies her genius for logical reasoning to every aspect of her life, whether to justify stealing waiters' tips from restaurants or cope with her impoverished but lazy parents who resent her success at school. One day while collecting money from friends for doing their homework, Sabine spies handsome forty year old Jiri (Georges Corraface) checking her out. Later when Jiri catches Sabine stealing tips again she manages to escape and get him arrested. Feeling guilty she meets Jiri outside the police station whereupon he slaps her, then kisses her and takes her home to his apartment for passionate sex. Upon discovering Sabine was a virgin, Jiri apologizes. It seems he mistook her for an underage prostitute. Oh, so that's alright then.
Ah, those wacky French with their cavalier attitude to older men romancing underage girls. What will likely strike many as a rather unpalatable, even seedy premise is instead portrayed as a kooky 'meet cute' in this sincere but deeply eccentric coming of age romantic drama. As the plot unfolds, Sabine tries to convince Jiri to pay her for sex so she has the money needed to enroll at a fancy academy for maths whiz kids, while the latter tries to romance her out of any financial inclinations. Charming, non? Child geniuses applying intellect to try and unravel mysteries of everyday life are a staple of quirky dramas and comedies, most recently Mona Achache's delightfully philosophical The Hedgehog (2009), occasionally throwing adolescent romance into the mix as with George Roy Hill's charming, Paris-set A Little Romance (1979). With C'est la Tangente Que Je Prefere, also known as Love, Sex and Mathematics, the age difference between the lovers remains a stumbling block as writer-director Charlotte Silvera attempts an awkward fusion of La Boum (1980) with Last Tango in Paris (1972).
Sabine wants to reconcile her abstract theorems with physical reality for which her erotic encounters with an experienced older man prove the ideal experiment. The film hits on interesting ideas, including a debate whether art or mathematics can provide a greater understanding of reality, but is undone by trite philosophizing and an overly cutesy treatment of a relationship that is at best ambiguous, complete with nauseating love talk ("You've changed. So sweet, the little savage has gone", purrs Jiri when Sabine returns to his bed). The sex scenes are explicit to an uncomfortable degree. Even more so given Julie Delarme's rabbit-in-the-headlights like facial expressions when she tries to act sexy. Silvera evidently intends George Corraface's aggressive seducer to come across like a schoolgirl's dream of a suave and sensitive older lover, but he emerges as smarmy and sinister prone to skin-crawling pretension and pontificating endlessly how technology is the rot of human civilization.
Even more problematic is the fact Sabine comes across almost entirely unsympathetic. While her dilemmas are interesting her actions prove less than admirable. Reason devoid of empathy has made Sabine self-serving. She steals, blackmails classmates and shamelessly manipulates others, all while using mathematics and logical reasoning to justify some quite unsavoury antics. Like François Ozon's recent Jeune & Jolie (2013), this is a sophisticated, older filmmaker's jaded, distorted, romanticized vision of youth. Reality is far more awkward. One possibly intentional side-effect of portraying Sabine as so far from angelic is that it enables oh-so-passionate-and-lovestruck Jiri to come across like a romantic hero. Yet the finale where he basically buys his underage lover from her parents leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Silvera includes a vague sub-plot concerning Sabine's Muslim classmate fighting for the right to wear a veil at school implying sexual repression grants her a spiritual insight into life Sabine lacks. It is an idea as one-dimensional and insulting as the film's blasé attitude to statutory rape.