When you write for a living, there are few things as frustrating as writer’s block. In his directorial debut, Gareth Jones attempts to explore not only the difficulties of the writing process but also the structure of relationships and the illusion of control.
Ralph (Oscar Pearce) is an agoraphobic screenwriter struggling to work on his latest project. He busies himself in the confines of his London flat while his wife Phoebe (Daisy Smith) continues her career as a successful actress in a soap he used to write. He’s hoping that a breakthrough will restore some lost confidence, rekindle the spark in his marriage and eliminate his growing sense of emasculation.
Struggling with writer’s block and faced with a looming Christmas deadline, Ralph hires Néné (Tella Kpomahou), a Parisian student originally from West Africa ostensibly to look after his neglected children but more significantly as inspiration for his screenplay which is beginning to blur the lines between reality and fiction.
Phoebe is initially furious that he hired Néné without consulting her, treating her with barely concealed disdain exacerbated by her children’s fondness for their new nanny. But her sexual curiosity gets the better of her and at Ralph’s prompting she sleeps with her one evening, setting in motion a chain of events which drives Ralph into Néné’s bed and threatens to destroy their marriage.
As emotional jealousies threaten to boil over, things are made even more complicated as Néné realises that Ralph is using her as a device for his screenplay and refuses to slot into his preconceived ideas, demanding instead to write her own part, and Phoebe brings a co-star (Adam Slynn) home for more than just coffee.
It’s shot well by Alex Ryle, who manages to make the most of the tightly constrained set and Jones’s writing and direction invests Desire with a claustrophobic intensity – characters are closer than they should be even before they start sharing beds. Tella Kpomahu is magnetic as Néné who exudes a statuesque beauty and an apparent naiveté under which lies a perceptive personality. Be careful that when you are observing, you are not yourself observed.
However, Ralph’s intermittent voice-over is extremely distracting as he explicitly states the conclusions of his transgressive experiment rather than let them unfold by themselves. His laboured pontificating about the nature and structure of desire (both the emotion and the developing screenplay) is jarring and prevents the film from gaining any significant momentum. This combined with the largely confined set makes Desire feel like it would be better suited to stage than screen.