The Lovers (Les amants)

Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: Louis Malle (dialogue by Louise de Vilmorin; inspired by the novel Point de Lendemain by Dominique Vivant)
Stars: Jeanne Moreau (Jeanne Tournier), Alain Cuny (Henri Tournier), José Villalonga (Raoul Flores), Jean-Marc Bory (Bernard Dubois-Lambert), Judith Magre (Maggy Thiebaut-Leroy), Gaston Modot (Coudray), Michèle Girardon (La secrétaire), Claude Mansard (Marcelot), Georgette Lobre (Marthe), Patricia Maurin (Catherine), Lucienne Hamon (Chantal)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1958
Country: France
The Lovers
The LoversRegarded as both revolutionary and scandalous (are the two ever far apart?) when it was released in the late 1950s in both Europe and the United States, Louis Malle’s The Lovers (Les Amants) has not aged terribly well in the ensuing six decades, and it’s not because its tastefully wrought sexuality seems so tame by contemporary standards. In fact, the notorious love scene in The Lovers, which was so naked in its display of physical sensuality that the film’s banning in the U.S. resulted in a legendary Supreme Court decision, is the one sequence that has maintained the most vitality.

This captivating sequence, exquisitely shot and edited, drifts in a dreamlike atmosphere that suggests the overwhelming of the senses with passion and abandon. Shot in beautiful black-and-white anamorphic widescreen by legendary cinematographer Henri Decaë, it is an intensely engaging visual experience (according to Malle, the film’s visual look was inspired by the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich). Yet, despite the film’s overall beauty and its moments of sensuality, it still comes up short on emotional suture. It shows us passion, but at times it feels too much like an exercise, rather than an organic narrative, which is ironic given that Malle had infused the cold, calculated story in his noir-ish feature debut Elevator to the Gallows (1958) with a warm humanism that lifted it above a simple genre experiment.

The film’s heroine is Jeanne Tournier, who is played by Jeanne Moreau fresh off her screen reinvention in Elevator to the Gallows. Jeanne is married to Henri (Alain Cuny), a wealthy newspaper owner who spends most of his time at the office and the rest listening to records in their well-appointed provincial house. Left to her own devices, Jeanne regularly drifts away to Paris, the center of modern French culture, where she spends time with her best friend Maggy (Judith Magre) and engages in an affair with a snobbish polo player named Raoul (José Villalonga). All of this is mere time-filler, as Jeanne’s blank looks and general apathy suggest a hollow core deeply in need of being filled with something--anything.

That emptiness is eventually filled by a stranger named Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory), who helps her when her car breaks down by the side of the road. Bernard represents everything that is missing from the rest of her life: He is young (both Henri and Raoul are older men, distinguished and dull), intelligent (he works as an archaeologist), free-spirited, and unpretentious, which is represented by his driving a Citroën 2CV, an iconic French car designed to be cheap and versatile. According to Alan Williams in his history of French film, consumerist icons were a particularly popular way of demarcating character differences in the new French cinema, and here we can see Malle drawing sharp lines between Bernard and Jeanne’s stuffy lover Raoul, who drives a long, sleek, dark, and utterly pretentious Jaguar.

The film’s central setpiece is an awkward evening in which Henri invites Raoul and Maggy for the weekend, most likely because he suspects Jeanne’s infidelity. Bernard is thrown into the mix, as well, and it is here that Jeanne begins to see everything that he represents. While their relationship is at first mutually antagonistic (aware of her posh friends, Bernard openly despises them while she nags him for his lack of punctuality), it soon gives way to the kind of passionate, in-the-moment amour that only happens in the movies (in later interviews Malle has admitted that the film is naïve in its romanticism).

Jeanne blooms once she gives herself over to Bernard, and her on-screen orgasm--subtle though it may be--is a moment of pure existential pleasure: She has been freed. Because of this, the film has frequently been read as a story of female emancipation, as Jeanne openly rejects both her stodgy husband and stuck-up lover, but it is hard to fully embrace this freedom given that she can only find it in the arms of another man. A truly revolutionary film would have seen her leaving all three of them and striking out fully on her own. To Malle’s credit, he doesn’t suggest a simplistic escape into the sunset. Rather, voice-over narration clearly informs us of the ambiguous future, which may or may not hold happiness for Jeanne and Bernard.

Even in France, The Lovers was scandalous, mostly because it repressed all judgment of Jeanne’s actions (including leaving behind her 8-year-old daughter) in favor of letting the audience make up its own mind. This is a daring conceit (in several countries it wasn’t the details of the sexual encounter that were censored, but rather the scene that reveals Jeanne soon-to-be-deserted daughter), and one that still holds the power to ruffle feathers. It’s hard not to find Jeanne’s character either powerfully free or disgustingly self-absorbed. Malle clearly leans toward the former, as so much of the film plays as a mockery of the French high culture into which he was born and raised (he came from a wealthy industrialist family). The tone of the film is both light and serious, so that it is never quite grounded, which is most likely why it will continue to be remembered not for the themes it conveys, but for the scandals it engendered.

The Lovers Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AnamorphicYes
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
Supplements
  • Two archival interviews with Louis Malle
  • Two archival interview with Jean Moreau
  • Archival interview with José Luis de Villalonga
  • Archival interview with Louise de Vilmorin
  • Gallery of U.S. promotional material
  • New essay by film historian Ginette Vincendeau
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$29.95
    Release DateMay 13, 2008

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    No complaints here about Criterion’s new high-definition anamorphic transfer, which was made from a 35mm master positive and digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. The image is a bit soft, but this is surely the intended look of the film. There are a few signs of age, including a few hair lines, but little to betray that the film is now 50 years old. Some of the film grain in the darker scenes looks a bit noisy, but that’s as bad as it gets. The French monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical track print and digitally restored, is clean and clear, paying ample respect to the film’s classical soundtrack.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    The supplements are comprised entirely of interviews. There are excerpts from two French television interviews with director Louis Malle, one in 1963 just after he had completed The Fire Within (10 min.) and one in 1994, just over a year before his death (19 min.). There are also excerpts from two television interviews with star Jeanne Moreau, one from 1958 shortly after the film won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival (3 min.) and one from 1972 (6 min.). Following that, we have a 5-min. television interview with actor José Luis de Villalonga from 1958 and 4-min. television interview with cowriter Louise de Vilmorin from 1965.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (2.5)




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