The Lovers

The Lovers


Reviewed by: Chris

A married woman (some years after concluding a successful affair) once lectured me that love was about commitment and being able to get on with one another. Perhaps, I thought. Except poetry – and perhaps French literature especially, gives the word a somewhat more vibrant texture. A meaning many of us still perhaps yearn for – powerfully - in our heart of hearts.

'Jeanne' in this film is played by Jeanne Moreau. Beautiful and sexy. She is trapped in a marriage of monotony. Her husband is a successful newspaper publisher. Their Dijon country chateau is one of understated wealth. Industriously posh establishment, if you like.

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Jeanne visits her friend Maggy in Paris regularly. Maggy is trendy and superficial. She approves of Jeanne's affair with Raoul, a rather buff polo star. Unlike Jeanne's husband Henri (who, it must be said, is a boring old fart), Raoul is attentive and adoring. Society chic, if you like.

Into the mix suddenly appears Bernard, an archaeologist. He hates Maggy's in-crowd – describing them as 'flavour of the day'. He is probably everything Henri would be if Henri had a life. (Henri has spent years slaving away in a publishing house. Plenty of money. Plenty of nice furniture, including a wife.) He politely welcomes Bernard, who rescued Jeanne when her car broke down.

If this were a rom-com you'd guess the rest. Cue steamy sex with artistic lighting. And while Les Amants gives you plenty of what you expect, it also gives you plenty of what you don't. Unresolved moral quandaries – if you like, or not.

It was the moral outrage – a married woman leaving her husband and children after a night of sex – that probably led to obscenity charges on the film's release in America in the late Fifties. It's far more than the momentary nudity. The latter seems mild today. Yet the film is as fresh as it was then. As challenging as it was then. And as beautiful.

Les Amants is shot in immaculate black and white. The men playing polo. The exquisitely photographed French countryside. And a Brahms (Sextet in B-flat Major) leitmotif which both immortalises the passion and encourages us to attach importance to its emotional and aesthetic qualities. Jeanne's first world (with Henri) is dead and empty. Her second (with Raoul) is a pleasant distraction but shallow. Visually and verbally, Bernard connects to Jeanne in an altogether different way. He makes her work for it but then rewards her. Henri makes her work for attention but doesn't give it. Raoul showers it on her with no effort on her part.

Bernard ignores Jeanne's 'damsel in distress' pitch when her car breaks down. "Engines and I don't see eye to eye," he tells her. Until Jeanne breaks out of her pathetic helpless-female stereotype he is uninterested. When we meet Bernard he is wearing a white cap, matching Jeanne's outfit. He makes her to laugh, comparing her husband to a bear. Later, at dinner, he wears a grey suit, standing out from everyone else's black and white. We see Jeanne making a determined effort with her appearance. Bernard's poetry wears her down. He fills her head with visions of how beautiful the night is – and then associates her vision with how he sees her. He awakes the divine in Jeanne – "Her angel's smile gleamed."

The moonlight tryst sees light rippling through leaves onto water. Bernard frees the fish caught by Jeanne's husband's traps. He is freeing her spirit from her dark depths. His intrusion (like the bat and flies at the house) is first seen as a threat. But it is her freedom he acknowledges, that she has denied herself, that is too horrible to countenance. "Is this a land you invented for me to lose myself in?" she asks.

Jeanne realises that the part of her she dreads the most is the only thing that makes her feel alive. "Her world is falling apart. A hateful husband and an almost ridiculous lover. The tragedy Jeanne thought she was in had become a farce. Suddenly she wishes she could become someone else."

Readers may recall the not too dissimilar dilemma of Julianne Moore's character in The Hours. She leaves a husband and child and disappears to become someone else. In that story, no lover complicates the dilemma. She is simply suffocating. We are tempted to condemn Jeanne's action because of her night of passion. But she is similarly escaping from an impossible life. A duty to her husband, yes. To her offspring, of course. But isn't the highest duty to her own being, her own life? And it is not as if Bernard is a philanderer. He wants her for always. But instead of reassuring us that everything will turn out well, director Louis Malle realistically allows our protagonists to acknowledge that they face an unknown. They are well-suited – there is none of the narrative primitivism of, say, Women In Love. But Les Amants is a film of emotional and moral honesty. No wonder it shocked the bourgeoisie. And American values.

The obscenity charges in the USA went to the high court. Justice Potter Stewart overturned them and made his famous pronouncement on pornography: "I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that." European films of this ilk helped to push the bland American filmmaking of the time towards greater artistic freedom. Les Amants established Jeanne Moreau's onscreen image as a sexually independent woman. Her strong performance as someone responding to three very different life choices cemented her onward career.

This is a film of courage, of a sophisticated beauty singing in tune with her own nature, rejecting the limiting values of industry and society. It is the story of a woman finding she is the equal of man – and finding a man who is her equal. The last portion is perhaps overly sentimental. But it is sentimental about the dark night of her soul. Not a Disneyfied happy ending. If you are shocked after seeing the film, ask yourself why.

Reviewed on: 12 May 2008
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Controversial drama about a married mum who walks out on her husband.
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Director: Louis Malle

Writer: Louise de Vilmorin, based on the book by Dominique Vivant.

Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Alain Cuny, José Luis de Villalonga, Jean-Marc Bory, Judith Magre, Gaston Modot

Year: 1958

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France


EIFF 2008
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