The tagline for The Lovers reads: “She knew the moment of climax had come…and all civilized restraint was swept away.” In 2011 this makes the film seem far more pornographic, and closer to a cheap romance novel than it actually is.
The Lovers is a landmark film for the obscenity charges it faced when first released – charges that actually extended until 1964. It was, along with a slew of other films, one of those that moved American production (though this isn’t an American film) into the modern rating system as we know it.
Jeanne Moreau, the great, Louis Malle, French New Wave regular, plays Jeanne Tournier. She’s a housewife, in a bored marriage to Henri (Alain Cuny). She eases her ennui by taking regular trips to Paris where she stays with her friend Maggy (Judith Magre) and takes up in an affair with the tall, handsome polo player Raoul (Jose Luis de Vilallonga). Henri’s suspicions and jealousy growing, he insists on a dinner party with Raoul and Maggy. Jeanne’s car breaks down on the way and she catches a ride with Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory), a forthright young man who flippantly insults what he sees as Jeanne’s bourgeoisie lifestyle. Nonetheless, he stays for dinner, and that night has a torrid affair with Jeanne.
Louis Malle’s interview on the Criterion DVD is one of the best I’ve seen. Among other gems he drops are “the entire history of cinema is panning away to windows,” and “there’s always a New Wave behind you.”
The former of these two quotes is particularly telling. Malle claims that, were he “allowed” he wouldn’t have panned away at all, instead of lingering for slightly longer than the average film and then panning away. He’s referring, of course, to the love scenes, which are rather non-graphic, and also do little physical exploration in terms of composition and camera-work. A shot of hands tightly clasped, a pan away that’s 10 seconds later than normal is what the shock of this film amounts to.
Well, maybe not entirely. What’s really great about this film is the ending. SPOILER: Convinced that this newfound passion is better than what she has with Henri and Raoul, or, convinced that Henri and Raoul are not worth the time, Jeanne leaves her life and child behind the next morning. The film closes with she and Bernard on the road. This part is quite shocking, particularly given the tenderness with which Jeanne views her daughter. It’s selfish, but also liberating. The film certainly has its share of feminist overtones, not only in her abandonment of traditionally matriarchal principles, but also in its refusal to give a reason, other than want, for Jeanne’s affair. Jeanne fulfills desire in the moment, plain and simple.
The key word in that tagline is “civilized.” The marketers/distributors/exhibitors were, of course, far less interested in any feminist or revisionist ideology than in making a buck. It’s interesting that the tagline refers then to the ending as being uncivilized, as though attempting to still demonize Jeanne’s actions, or at the very least point them away from acceptable, societal norms. Further, there is, implicit in that tagline, the idea that some restraint remains. It’s just civilized restraint that is gone. Read: this film goes far…but not too far.
The sequence where Bernard and Jeanne begin their affair is haunting and romantic. It begins slowly in the hallways and empty living room of Henri and Jeanne’s estate – a house that could be the same from Renoir’s The Rules of the Game in its size, winding halls, and revolving doors. Eventually it moves outside and, appropriately away from the house. Away from her life. Away from civilized society. That their affair begins in the woods and on a small rowboat is telling in the animalistic nature it implies. Jeanne therefore has three affairs: traditional (with Henri in their home), modern (with Raoul in Paris) and physical (with Bernard in the woods). It’s like a reverse life-cycle of the stereotypical woman, where it ends with the hysteria and unbridled passion of a teenage affair rather than beginning with it. Where Jeanne deserts the quiet home life instead of evolving towards it.
This outdoor sequence is filled with long, slow takes (that Malle would later dismiss as “bravura”) that instantly change the stilted, burning, awkward tension from inside to a more natural, eerily low-key build outside. The high-contrast lighting, alternately throwing Bernard and Jeanne into shadow, the rippling light from the water, the close blocking all amount to the only true passion on-screen in the film (it’s interesting that, though much of the film is devoted to Jeanne’s affair with Raoul, we never see them in more than an embrace). Outside, cold stone walls are replaced with gently waving tree branches. Long hallways with the dreamy flow of water. Lamps and records with moonlight and an owl’s cry. It’s the idealized romance that, whether or not Jeanne intentionally seeks it, she certainly intentionally finds it.
Also noteworthy about this sequence is the way time is handled. It’s linear, but Malle seems to expand time in his moving from location-to-location (woods to water to woods to house) via dissolves. The night feels endless. Perhaps its as much the lack of urgency between the two as it is the construction of the scene. They fall asleep in the rowboat. Jeanne takes a bath. It’s as if, and enhanced through Malle’s direction, they are not afraid of the coming morning and therefore having to take some responsibility for their actions. It’s not as though time has stopped, but it is as though it has bent to their whims and to their need for a semi-permanent dark shroud with which to carry on their sudden affair.
The Lovers is told through a 3rd person narration. The voice might be Jeanne’s, but it tells her story in an omniscient, third party way, implying that this is more storybook than personal recollection. Why the voiceover? For one, it adds a frankness to her actions. It reports them rather than letting them flow freely. While in the end the voiceover does tell of her emotion – her hesitation, the opportunity lying ahead and behind, the uncertainty of it all – it mostly relies on a plain telling of bare facts in order to produce perhaps the same amount of sentimentality she uses to make her decisions: just the basic necessities.