(The Lover, France/UK/Vietnam - 1992)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jane March, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Frederique Meininger, Arnaud Giovaninetti, Melvil Poupaud, Jeanne Moreau
Genre: Drama/Romance
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Screenplay: Gerard Brach & Jean-Jacques Annaud based on Marguerite Duras' novel
Cinematography: Robert Fraisse
Composer: Gabriel Yared
Runtime: 115 minutes

A poor, delicate 15-year-old French schoolgirl (Jane March) living in French Indochina (Vietnam) in 1929 has a doomed sex relationship with rich 32-year-old Chinaman (Tony Leung Ka Fai). The Lover is a story of class and racial intolerance from both sides separating two lovers to the extent any future is impossible. Their only relationship can be with the girl as a prostitute, a role she is willing to play largely for escapism, though with her rotten older brother’s (Arnaud Giovaninetti) drug debts and their failing rice farm the money certainly doesn’t hurt. The fact they are from different races and cultures peaks both of their interests. The Chinaman enjoyed many French women (prostitutes) in France, but it’s impossible to find one to have sex with you in Indochina, as all Asians are too looked down upon by their imperialist counterparts and deflowered French girls can’t find a husband. The Young Girl is looking to explore her sexuality, and a wealthy and sophisticated older man offers the potential for new adventures. Neither are considering much less particularly interested in triumphing over the racial prejudice of their upbringing, they are respectively reliving and discovering their fantasies.

The Chinaman is obliged to follow the traditions of his race and marry the selected Chinese girl of equal fortunes. For this loyalty he’ll be rewarded with enough money to keep him from ever having to work. In a sense his wisdom has boxed him in, as he didn’t take his studies in France seriously, choosing the life of a playboy instead, and now it’s too late to go back. He doesn’t know how to do anything beyond smoke, spend money and have sex, a trio he enjoys mixing, but more importantly has no desire to learn. One could argue the fact that his future has been mapped out for him has drained him of his life force. He’s incredibly lazy and lacking any initiative, though he’s always known he could afford to be. Realistically, he’ll have enough that any level of success wouldn’t really improve his life beyond the ability to have a contribution to show.

The Chinaman has always been able to keep things in perspective, while all these experiences are new to the young confused girl, who isn’t as strong as she’d like to be or as cold as she’d like him to believe. His experience has taught him to take what’s available to him, but no more. Even though he’s entered into a forbidden relationship, he knows he’s safe as long as he breaks it off when he’s told it’s time to get married. What he didn’t know is in this case he’d prefer not to, but that doesn’t mean he’s willing or capable of change.

Jean Jacques Annaud’s film is always looked down upon because there is a lot of sex, the girl is supposed to be underage, and it's not hopeful in the least. The point is that the relationship they have, shallow as you may view it, is all their relationship can ever be. The characters are depressed because there is no future together, so they keep trying to deny and/or avoid the obvious, but it is what it is. I find this film to be far more honest than the typical love story. It doesn't pander to the audience with a lot of fairytale mythmaking than the rich man is going to give up all his dough, suddenly slave all day instead of screw, and they'll live together happily ever after. The relationship is taboo on both sides from race and class. Unfortunately they aren't going to be able to change the world by themselves, and realistically the rich man is going to stay rich.

The crux of the film is their insistent denial there’s anything to their relationship. They expend so much time and effort convincing themselves and each other at least The Young Girl is unable to see otherwise. The best way not to be hurt by what you can’t have is not to want it in the first place, so they insist it’s only a business interaction for pleasure as a defense mechanism to keep from dwelling on the fact they’ll soon have to part. And that’s really why the film is so moving, because the naive girl’s moment of discovery is beyond the point where anything could have been done to try to change what they knew from the outset to be unchangeable. Of course, there’s obvious tragedy in not being able to be with your true love, but in a sense the tragedy of L’Amant is they squandered the time they had together trying to spare their hearts from what they ultimately couldn’t deny.

Marguerite Duras wasn’t happy with the casting of the all too attractive leads, which not only distracts from the seriousness of the story, but more importantly make the audience understand an obvious physical attraction that didn’t actually exist. Anyone who wants to only see the sex will, that’s the way things go with certain subjects, but in this case it’s clearly their loss as they’ll deny themselves comprehension of what a wonderful love story this is. They don’t allow each other to have warm passionate sex, the girl asks The Chinaman to treat her the same as all his other lovers (whores), but this sex is still the only love they allow themselves to show toward one another. If it doesn’t seem like love, perhaps that’s because without saying it the film asks whether such a relationship can be love or is just a distraction they try to justify with emotions.

On reason Marguerite Duras’s novel is superior to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film is it does a far better job at conveying the mixed nature of The Young Girl’s contradictions. In the movie, they move from sincere to false, while in the book we understand she’s so confused she feels them at once. She has a love/hate relationship not only with him, but also interrelating it to herself, not only simultaneously feeling the most passionate emotions on both ends of the spectrum for one or the other, but rather for both parties. It’s easy to point the finger at Jane March’s performance, but the only filmmaker that’s really successful at portraying the way females can be at odds with their sexuality is Catherine Breillat.

Though the time shifts that make the memories more haunting are lost in adaptation, Annaud does succeed in making a highly literate adaptation. The high quality of the prose, which comes in regularly through a wonderful narration by Jeanne Moreau, who has long been linked to Marguerite Duras from starring in the Peter Brook (Seven Days... Seven Nights ) and Tony Richardson (Mademoiselle, The Sailor from Gibraltar) movies of Duras’ novels to Duras’ own Nathalie Granger to finally playing her in the good Cet-amour-la, combined with the detached and restrained technically proficient cinematography of Robert Fraisse and somber and melancholic score of Gabriel Yared maintain a sense of elegance that counteracts our innate deficiency to view anything sexual as tawdry the moment it’s put on the screen.

As always, Annaud beautifully renders the scenery, even beyond the nearly unparalleled beauty of Jane March there's so much beauty here, but it's overwhelmed by the oppressiveness of people and the monotony of their ways. The main problem with every Annaud film is he has a problem making his characters human. The Bear alone proves him a master of filming animals, and for better and worse he more or less shows humans as the same specimens, recording their repetition but never delving very deep into it. That said, he’s once again able to get away with it here because he's chosen a subject where humans are at their most animalistic. Most of the background information that could have been provided would have been completely bogus padding, the typical hypocritical apology for making a sex film, and frankly the film is more moving without it.


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