The Lovers July 13, 2021
José Luis de Vilallonga
1 Hr., 29 Mins.
he Lovers (1958) was as much of a headache as it was a pick-me-up for its director, Louis Malle, and its star, Jeanne Moreau. Earlier in the year, the pair, then also together in life, had attracted international attention with Elevator to the Gallows, a stylish, Hitchcockian thriller that marked the then-25-year-old Malle’s feature-length debut and the first time Moreau, primarily known as a stage actress and
supporting fixture in mainstream movies, had a movie so prominently circle around her. (She played a dissatisfied wife embroiled in a complicated scheme with her lover to kill her rich husband; as it usually goes in movies with this sort of thing, everything went catastrophically wrong.) The Lovers, Malle and Moreau's immediate follow-up, demarcated a pivot not just in style and tone — it’s a romantic drama that also understatedly ribs upper-class frivolity — but in reception.
The film climaxes in a tender love scene between the couple of the movie’s title, replete with quick flashes of nudity and a telltale allusion to oral sex. This, unsurprisingly, sparked outrage in a still-mostly-conservative France; the Catholic Church in the Italy in which the movie first screened (it debuted at the Venice Film Festival); and, most notably, in America. There, The Lovers found itself at the center of a court case. In Ohio, a theater manager was charged on two counts for possessing and exhibiting an obscene movie. (Guess which one.) Although those charges were upheld by the state’s court of appeals, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction. The film couldn’t officially be deemed obscene because, to paraphrase a legendary quote from Justice Potter Stewart, it didn’t strike him the way pornography would — a form he knows when he sees. It’s objectively pretty funny imagining a handful of justices sitting through The Lovers, which, while predictably not at all scandalous to the modern eye, is a smart and tasteful romantic movie with an undercurrent of contempt for its characters: decidedly the opposite of an obscene movie, which aims to be a lot less purposeful. Were any of these men pleasantly surprised by the film?
Moreau, who in The Lovers trades the cool acting style of Elevator to the Gallows for something a bit flightier, plays Jeanne, the stay-at-home wife of Henri (Alain Cuny), an emotionally distant newspaper publisher. Jeanne’s life is comfortable — she’s gotten used to an existence where slaking her material wants trumps most things — but deprived of a sustenance that keeps her existentially satisfied. Jeanne spends most of her time in Paris (she, Henri, and their young daughter live in a mansion near Dijon, though Henri is rarely around for long) with her best friend, Maggy (Judith Magre), and her lover, Raoul (José Luis de Vilallonga). But this escape doesn’t do much to effectively relieve her ennui.
Maggy, a compulsively chatty socialite, is someone Jeanne seems to like more for her willingness to hang out than her personality. And though Raoul, a polo player, is affectionate, Jeanne doesn’t appear to view him beyond what he can do for her in the afternoons and the once-in-a-while evening out. “Raoul adores you — isn’t that enough?” Maggy asks when Jeanne appears gripped with displeasure one afternoon. The answer, unequivocally, is no, even as Paris visits increase and Henri openly wonders what could be so great about this Maggy and Raoul — neither of whom he’s met — that makes Jeanne so eager to forsake her wifely and motherly duties.
As an act of spite more than genuine curiosity, Henri invites Maggy and Raoul to stay at his and Jeanne’s mansion for the weekend — a move that confirms expected awkwardness but also inadvertently brings Jeanne’s life new meaning. On the way over to the dreaded festivities, Jeanne’s car breaks down, and she’s picked up by a young and handsome archeologist named Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory). His nonchalance and distaste for high society strike Jeanne as refreshing — and when he drops her off, Henri, who recognizes Bernard’s family name, invites him to join the other guests. As Jeanne had prepared for (Bernard doesn’t speak the entire time), dinner is a nightmare. But the rest of the night proves rather dreamy. The connection Jeanne and Bernard had felt on the drive over, now able to more freely move with everyone else asleep, gives way for a night of passion. Cinematographer Henri Decaë shoots this evening to remember with an exaggerated, almost jarring creaminess so evocative of fantasy (I thought immediately of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, which too gave shades of white an angelic shine) that your first instinct is to think that Malle is half-joking. But soon we’re lost in the reverie — the idea of love as a form of transcendence, further poeticized by insistent Brahams strings breezing in the background.
By morning, the visual sensuousness accompanying Jeanne and Bernard’s night together has vanished, replaced by the harsh light of the dawn. What might be most shocking about The Lovers is what follows: Jeanne and Bernard decide, spoiler alert, to abandon their old lives for a new one, together, barely offering an explanation to anyone in the house. Jeanne has decisively uncovered something new about herself that she doesn’t want to let go of. Even if she hasn’t found liberation, exactly, she has transformed from something of an “artificial, frivolous creature to [an] ‘existentially’ sensual woman,” as observed by critic Ginette Vincendeau in a retrospective review of the movie. Malle neither openly celebrates the boldness of his characters — their willingness to prefer immediate instinct to entrenched duty — nor condemns them. (We don’t know as much about Bernard, but Jeanne’s impetuousness will certainly have major ripple effects, especially for her daughter.)
The Lovers concludes with perfect ambivalence — a nod to how there’s as much a chance of this impulsiveness unlocking future regret as there is a likelihood of everything changing for the better. You can sense Jeanne having doubts as she glances at herself in a café mirror the afternoon afterward. Is this who she is now? And when we hear a rooster crowing just after Henri and Jeanne leave the latter’s mansion, it sounds a bit like a wake-up call from the cosmos. Love is, as ever, life-changing — a gamble. B+