Once upon a time movie studios were able to produce serious films for adults with a minimum of teenage boy smirking or older prudish condemnation. That era is now gone, but while it lasted it produced some good films. The Lover is one of them. It is based on the semi-autobiographical 1984 novel of the same name by noted French author Marguerite Duras. The film received an Oscar nomination for its cinematography and some of the natural beauty it captured was that of the lead actor and actress. The Lover also received six Cesar (the “French Oscar”) nominations. In case you are allergic to subtitles, the film is presented in English.
Marguerite Duras is one of the most critically praised French authors of the 20th century. Over time people noticed that her novels seemed to often have taboo relationships between Europeans and Asians. The 1950s novel that really brought her to prominence – Hiroshima Mon Amour – was one such story. It was also noted that she had come of age in the 1920s in what was then French Indochina (now
and she was sometimes asked if she herself had had a relationship with an Asian
man. She would always deny it. After decades of speculation, though, she
finally wrote L’Amant (The Lover), which was about a teenage French girl who
had a torrid affair with a rich, 30ish Chinese man in French Indochina in the late
1920s. Even after this she still would
not really admit that the story was about her – the “shame” of an interracial
relationship still affecting her all those decades later.
I learned all of this later. The film first came to my attention when it was one of the movies that received an NC-17 rating in the first years of the rating’s existence. The version that was released theatrically censored a few minutes to get an R rating, but the version that was released to the home video market was the original, unrated film. In fact, I’ve only ever seen the real version available on VHS or DVD; I don’t know if the censored version ever existed anywhere outside the first run theaters.
The film opens with a woman in
France contemplating how she is now
much wiser than when she was a girl of fifteen and a half returning for her
next to last year in school in French Indochina. She does not have a name. She is simply referred to as The Girl. She is played by the perfectly cast Jane
March. (The narration from the older
version of her is from Jeanne Moreau.)
The Girl is obviously from a poor family. She is dressed in what looks like a cloth sack. On the trip back a fancy car pulls onto the same
ferry she is
on. It has a driver dressed to the nines
and a passenger in the back. He gets out
and we see he is about 30 years old, very well dressed, obviously rich…and
Chinese. He is simply known as either
The Chinaman or The Lover and is played by Tony Leung Ka Fai. He nervously approaches The Girl, who
immediately lies about her age to make herself seem older and more
sophisticated. He offers her a ride the
rest of the way to her school and she accepts.
The two flirt with each other, and it’s shown that if the ride had
lasted longer something serious might have even happened in the back of the
The Girl settles in back at her school, figuring she has a juicy story to tell her friend and that that is it. While leaving school one day, though, she sees the same car parked outside waiting for her. She simply walks up and kisses the window, flirting with him again. It’s not long before the two are having a torrid, and very forbidden, love affair.
The screwed up nature of prejudice and racism of the time means that The Girl cannot admit to anyone, even herself, that she might actually have feelings for this man. However, it is tolerated for a young woman such as herself to be sleeping with the 1920s equivalent of a sugar daddy, no matter the race, in return for him supporting her financially. Stop and think about that for a second – effectively prostituting herself was more socially acceptable than falling in love with an Asian man.
It is this arrangement that she lets everyone believe. It’s also the seeds of what will eventually be the biggest issue between the two – that she can’t admit even to him that she has real feelings for him. (And the continued reticence of the author to even be willing to admit to a similar relationship many decades later shows how deeply ingrained the “different races shouldn’t mix” social taboo was.)
At the top I referred to films for adults. This had multiple meanings. The movie has a story of a complicated love/relationship that doesn’t have all the easy answers/happy endings/true love conquers all clichés of so many other romances. The other meaning is that there are two major scenes of the lovers in the throws of sexual passion. And I will be the first to stand up and say that the scenes are damn effective and not the least bit gratuitous considering the nature of their relationship and the story being told.
There is one scene that starts with The Girl going to the apartment of The Lover. She is walking as fast as she possibly can without breaking into a run. It’s obvious from her body language that she can hardly contain herself from running to be with him. When she reaches the door she raises her hand to knock and he whips it open before she can even begin. This shows that he has been just as anxiously awaiting her arrival and he quickly pulls her inside. He makes love to her right there on the floor of the apartment right inside the door. It’s passionate and lustful and very, very hot. It’s also one of the scenes that were cut to get an R rating. It’s key to showing just how much the two were into each other, though, and that they weren’t just “screwing around” for the novelty of it.
For a while after the film came out director Jean-Jacques Annaud said that March and Leung Ka Fai were actually having sex in some scenes. Both of them denied it and he later did admit that he was lying to pump up some controversy for the rabid British Press. During this time author Duras condemned the film, although her objections didn’t seem to be anything more than her continued embarrassment at having been part of an interracial love affair when she was a teenager and that the film would make people connect her with the people on the screen.
If you are made uncomfortable by depictions of human sexuality on film, to the point that they obscure anything else about the movie, then you are definitely advised to avoid watching The Lover. The whole point of the film is about both the passion and messiness of a powerful, forbidden love affair, and the sex has a very important part in showing both the passion and the messiness. If this wouldn’t bother you, though, then I highly recommend this film.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars