Criterion // 1958 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // May 12th, 2008
When all conventions explode...in the most daring love story ever filmed!
Louis Malle was still in his 20s when he made his terrific feature directorial debut, Elevator to the Gallows (after having worked with Jacques Cousteau on The Silent World). That film, a moody, atmospheric film noir, starred Jeanne Moreau as a duplicitous woman scheming with her lover to murder her husband. For Malle's follow-up, he turned again to Moreau, and the result, 1958's The Lovers, is a very different film from its predecessor, one steeped in romance (as well as mild criticism of the bourgeoisie), not suspense and intrigue.
But what some saw as romance, others decried as "obscene." The film's sexuality shocked many, and led to the film being censored and banned. In the United States, the film's exhibition led to a Cleveland theater owner's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which yielded the now-famous description of pornography, courtesy of Justice Potter Stewart: "I know it when I see it."
Looking at The Lovers today, however, one does not see an obscene film, but rather a deeply sensual and sumptuously filmed (if not problematic) piece of cinema.
Provincial housewife Jeanne Tournier (Jeanne Moreau, Jules and Jim) is bored with her dull husband Henri (Alain Cuny) and lover Raoul (José Luis de Villalonga). One day, while driving back from one of her frequent Paris excursions, her car breaks down. A young archaeologist named Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory) comes to her aid and accompanies her back to her estate. Henri invites Bernard to spend the night at their home, and over the course of that evening, Bernard and Jeanne fall passionately in love.
The Lovers is probably best appreciated if one looks at it as a love letter to its star, Jeanne Moreau. The actress and her director were real life lovers for a time, and even without knowing that, the care with which Moreau is photographed by Malle and ace cinematographer Henri Decaë (The 400 Blows) is readily apparent. Whether it's the meticulously groomed and dressed Moreau who watches a polo match at the beginning of the film, or the nightgown-clad Moreau out for a stroll with Bernard, the actress never looks less than luminous.
Given the amount of time and energy lavished on her by the camera, it's a good thing Moreau turns in a strong performance for us to admire along with her beauty. Just look at some of her more well known performances, and you'll see the incredible range the actress has: the free-spirited, unpredictable Catherine of Jules and Jim; the jaded wife Lidia of La Notte; the cunning, revenge-seeking murderess of The Bride Wore Black. As she did in La Notte, Moreau brings ennui to her character in The Lovers, excellently portraying Jeanne's dissatisfaction with her life. Her perpetual, withering gaze of discontent and boredom clearly conveys Jeanne's emotional state during the first two-thirds of the film. And when Bernard comes along and fills her with newfound passion, we see a new person entirely who positively glows (and literally does so during the outdoors sequence), so reinvigorated and rejuvenated is she by her love for Bernard.
Malle also makes the interesting decision of having Moreau read third-person voiceover narration, which ups the actress' prominence in the film that much more. The rather direct lines of narration ("Henri's lack of interest in her made Jeanne feel free") work very well in helping the viewer get into the mindset of the character, even if the voiceover probably isn't necessary. In addition, the track also, it must be said, adds to the veneer of class Malle imparts on this film, along with the well-chosen Brahms music on the soundtrack.
In fact, "classy" and "elegant" are two words that go very well with The Lovers, and watching it today, it's difficult to conceive how the film was condemned as being "obscene" at the time of its release. The controversial love scene between Bernard and Jeanne is simultaneously tasteful and erotic as it shows Bernard move out of the frame and down Jeanne's body, leaving us to watch Jeanne's hand writhing with ecstasy. It's a wonderful scene, the sensuality of which is still very much apparent today.
The Criterion Collection has done their usual fine job with their technical presentation of The Lovers. The black and white image is frequently stunning, although it does suffer from flickering from time to time. The sound quality is similarly strong, particularly when it comes to playing that Brahms music.
In terms of extras, The Lovers feels a little light. There is a text and picture-only gallery that provides a brief history of the movie's controversial U.S. release. The materials included here are interesting, but I think a brief documentary featurette would have been more satisfying. In addition, there is a collection of archival interviews with Malle, Moreau, de Villalonga and writer Louise de Vilmerin. In total, the interviews run a little over 45 minutes. Not surprisingly, the most substantial of these (both in terms of length and interest) are the two with Malle. The 1994 interview with the director is particularly interesting, as Malle is able to look back on the film from a distance of several decades. He is very candid about his early film; stating, "I'm not sure I could pull off the film's romanticism today." He also said if he remade The Lovers, the resulting film would be "much harsher." Finally, there is a booklet containing a fascinating essay by film historian Ginette Vincendeau.
The reason I say that it's best to look at The Lovers as a love letter to Moreau, is because for me, this is a hard movie to like in many ways. Until Jeanne and Bernard's moonlight frolic, The Lovers is well put together but not very compelling. Malle takes some jabs at the bourgeoisie with the film's depictions of Maggy, Henri, and Raoul (and Jeanne herself, really), but ultimately, The Lovers is a sentimental, sensuous picture, not a biting social commentary. Only Moreau's performance, Malle's direction and Decaë's cinematography help push the relatively uninteresting storyline along.
It doesn't help matters that the protagonist is largely an unsympathetic character. Sure, Henri is a bore who is clearly more interested in his job than his wife, but he doesn't seem like a total heel. Even worse, Jeanne, by leaving with Bernard at the end of the movie, abandons her young daughter Catherine (Patricia Maurin), and in an interesting move, the film does not pass judgment on Jeanne for doing so. This was clearly a deliberate decision on Malle's part; in one of the interviews included on this disc, he explains that some countries wanted to excise all scenes including Catherine, a move to which Malle was opposed. I understand Malle's motivation for having Catherine in the movie, as it makes the situation more complicated and Jeanne less sympathetic, and I certainly don't have to like the main character of a movie, but sometimes while watching The Lovers, I felt the same way I did when I saw the über-trashy Notes on a Scandal: What's the point? In the case of The Lovers, this feeling is mitigated to a degree by the doubt expressed by Jeanne at the end of the movie. (Also, The Lovers does not traffic in sensationalism like Notes does.)
With a deeply romantic movie like The Lovers, a big factor in whether you like it or not is your own opinion on love. After all, not everyone believes in love at first sight. (For the record, I don't.) Malle himself admits in one of the archival interviews that his take on the concept was "naïve." It is interesting to compare The Lovers to Malle's penultimate feature, 1992's Damage, which has two characters fall in love (or lust) at first sight, but then explores the darker consequences of acting on that desire. Damage has its share of flaws, and its leading lady Juliette Binoche is no Moreau (although she's quite good), but of the two, Damage also is the braver (and much more fascinating) movie. If nothing else, these two career bookends would make a great double feature for a Malle fan.
The Lovers features strong direction from Louis Malle and a lovely performance from Jeanne Moreau. Again, with a film as romantic as The Lovers, much of whether you enjoy it comes down to personal preference. Personally, I lean toward Malle's darker works such as Elevator to the Gallows and Damage, but The Lovers is still a well-made film that is a must-see for fans of Malle and/or Moreau.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Selection of archival interviews with director Louis Malle, actors Jeanne Moreau and José Luis de Villalonga and writer Louise de Vilmorin
* Gallery of promotional material from the U.S. release
* Booklet featuring a new essay by film historian Ginette Vincendeau