#903. Les amants / The Lovers (1958, Louis Malle)

screened Wednesday, January 17, 2007 on VHS in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #720 IMDb

Alas, no decent screenshots to be had off the old VHS by Macrovision-happy New Yorker Video. Which begs the question, when will this be put out on DVD? Does New Yorker still has the rights? To paraphrase Godard, if they have the rights, then they have the duty.

It is my duty - as much as I would love to offer the be-all and end-all review of this film - to mention a wonderful review of this film by Patrick Garson for Senses of Cinema. What I like most about it is Garson's attentiveness to what he calls the film's "internal dissonance."

Taking a step back, I admit that the dissonance applies to my own unresolved opinion of Louis Malle. I've enjoyed Lacombe Lucien (TSPDT #487), Atlantic City (TSPDT #928), and Au Revoir Les Enfants (though the latter two were childhood viewings -- images of Susan Sarandon's naked breasts and a boy's unintentional betrayal of his Jewish friend to Nazis affecting me equally in different ways). I've been less enthusiastic about Elevator to the Gallows, Zazie dans le metro, My Dinner with Andre, Vanya on 42nd Street and Damage (the thematic sequel to The Lovers). With the first two, I was put off by the overt style; with the latter two there wasn't enough of a discernible style to make them stand out. At best, I can term him a conscientious and versatile filmmaker with a penchant for eliciting great performances. At worst, he strikes me as a pedigreed journeyman of variable quality to his output depending on his scripts (one day I'll have to revisit Atlantic City to see if Dave Kehr is right, that the film really belongs to screenwriter John Guarre), harboring an overall bourgeois attitude towards the world. The Lovers, however, gives me pause to reconsider the man's career, and what I find to be the one consistent strength of his films, one that The Lovers exemplifies, is his sense of social milieu. Whether it's the privileged bourgeoisie, a French farm village or boarding school during the Occupation, or the hangers-on that haunt a casino, he gives these mini-communities an air of authenticity.

At first I wasn't keen on the bourgeois parlor drama being played out as Jeanne Moreau restlessly shuttled between her unhappy rural estate with her neglectful newspaperman husband and her weekend flings in Paris with a Spanish polo player egged on by her bemused girlfriend, herself a bored socialite wife. I have a predisposed disinterest in the petty dramas of the well-to-do, and I wasn't sure what this film was up to in showing Moreau (Jeanne Morose as Manny Farber liked to call her) moping among the expensive furniture -- like so many satires of the rich, the film seemed to be having its cake and eating it.

'And what costume shall the poor girl wear...'

It wasn't until halfway in the film, when the two worlds collide in a fateful dinner party, that I felt fully invested in the film, but I bided my time thanks to some lovely scenes of Moreau in her restless state, thankfully without dialogue. Driving in her from a fun time in Paris, or pacing restlessly in her bedroom back home -- these scenes are shot almost like a wildlife documentary and they allow Moreau's physical acting gifts - a pent up energy always threatening to overspill - to manifest themselves. Malle shoots generously in medium shot to give a sense of her in her surroundings, and invariably the effect is prison-like. At this point Malle's treatment of his Rolls Royce-and-silver egg holder subjects takes on more of the dissonance Garson alludes to. One isn't sure whether to view Moreau sympathetically as a prisoner of her gilded cage, or condescendingly as a product of a superficial lifestyle. One might view this dissonance as the sign of a confused vision -- but that needn't be seen as a sign of inferior directing. I wouldn't put it past Malle that he identified in no small part with his subject. To quote Garson: Malle works with a very deceptive touch and the viewer is constantly plagued by the sense that there are other levels to the film, levels to which we have only sporadic access. On the one hand, the film is unremittingly bourgeois. Malle was just 26 when he made Les Amants, and much of his experience to this point mirrored that of Jeanne: a cocktail of provincial and Parisian life, with no lack of silver spoons in either... The film features strong conventions taken from bourgeois melodrama – the dashing, polo-playing lover, the dark and emotionally inaccessible husband, the discontented wife – but Malle continually undermines or questions them by giving his characters an unlooked-for humanity.

What's remarkable about the film, especially in the dinner scene that brings Moreau, her stuffy husband, snooty best friend, Latin lover, and a random fellow along for the ride, is that no one really comes off as an overt target of satirical scorn. Everyone has their fair share of attributes, fears and a consummate desire to just figure out what the hell is going on. Malle has the balls to add weirdness to the scene - a bat flies in causing the dinner party to turn off the lights in an attempt to shoo it away - without going for Bunuelian overkill. In this way he proves himself worthy of Renoir.

Women's lib or a flight of fancy?

But then we get to the notorious erotic fantasy sequence where Moreau steals away with Random Dude, first on a moonlit river impossibly oozing romance, then in a bedroom sex scene that scandalized the world of 1958 by showing one millisecond of Moreau's bare nipple. I learned that this was the movie that, upon being banned for obscenity in Ohio, inspired US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (not Jimmy Stewart as I was once told) to give his famous definition of obscentiy: "I know it when I see it." I can't fully fault Stewart for sensing pornography in this sequence, because essentially, and to some degree intentionally, that's what it is: an escapist fantasy that Moreau's character has retreated into out of desperation. What's unclear is what exactly to make of this sequence -- we can celebrate Moreau's sexual self-determination or we can pooh-pooh it as more shallow, escapist desperation. Is it a brazen act of rebellion against the shallow confines of society, or just another by-product of the same? Porn as art, or art as porn?

The film leaves us at this impasse -- Moreau and her nouvelle beau drive off the estate in a seemingly resolute finale that's really as unresolved as that of The Graduate (TSPDT #215). In sum it feels like a reactionary statement by someone who's so entrenched inside a bourgeois worldview that he cannot truly see his way out. All the same, he does a hell of a job getting us this far.