Louis Malle’s 1958 film The Lovers (Les Amantes) followed his initial international breakthrough Elevator to the Gallows, both of which coincidentally starred legendary French sex icon, Jeanne Moreau. After giving Moreau what he thought was an unglamorous part in Elevator to the Gallows, Malle felt like he owed her a genuine leading lady turn.
This rumination on extra-martial longing, motherhood, class, and sexual awakening is an exercise in aesthetic, languid beauty, and is paced delicately. Yet despite its quiet emotional force, its extraordinary presence of Moreau (who is breathtaking in almost every single scene of the film), and a ripe sense of visual voluptuousness, the film is best known in the United States for being slapped with the “obscene” label in a time when that could destroy not only a film but a director’s career.
Credited as the first film to show a close-up of a woman’s face while she is achieving orgasm, The Lovers managed to create only a mild controversy when it was screened in Cleveland Heights, Ohio by theater manager Nico Jacobellis, who was charged with and convicted of possessing and exhibiting an obscene film. Theater owners in Chicago and Portland were also arrested. The case famously made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled that the film was not obscene. Of note was Justice Potter Stewart’s response to the film and to pornography in general: “I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” (Jacobellis v. Ohio)
Serendipitously, the Catholic Church joined in on the fun and publicly denounced the film when it played at the Venice Film Festival, where it won top honors for the fledgling director, who was only 25-years-old when he made this very austere piece. Malle has said of the film “when you’re 25, you want to explore love,” and that he was “happy” that the film caused controversy because that meant more people would turn out to see what the fuss was all about.
Mildly titillating by today’s standards (though arguably sexier than most love scenes nowadays), Malle’s risque yet tasteful peek into the sex life of wanton provincial bourgeois housewife Jeanne Tournier (Moreau) as she leaves her priggish husband Henri (Alain Cuny) for man-candy Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory), remains enigmatic in that the filmmaker never really fills in the blanks for his audience. Does Jeanne leave simply to satiate her carnal desires? Or does she leave to protest her boring suburban existence and all of its empty trappings?
The audience is left to fend for itself, and the lack of a complete, traditional narrative doesn’t provide much assistance in figuring out the character’s motives. Malle’s early film is simply a poetic, image- and atmosphere-heavy cascade of postcards from the edge, where he tries to convince the viewer that he is not a slave to the conventions of the medium, but a visionary whose intentions span far further than what is apparent onscreen.
Throughout his career, Malle often struggled with classification, and where he fits in the directorial style scope. His placement in the category of “auteur” was challenged by most critics of the time, who interpreted his work as neither bold enough to be considered a true auteur nor bombastic enough to be considered a tyro of the burgeoning New Wave.
Of note here is the director’s ability to successfully maneuver through a style period that was in flux: there are connotations of both the classic, romantic styles of filming that were popular at the time and the growing, more visually loose, French New Wave perspective that was in its infancy. Malle’s mild experimenting, while not stylistically revolutionary at this point in his career, is often lumped into the “Nouvelle Vague” movement that was partly born from the Italian Neo-Realism movement of the era, but The Lovers remains a film that neither has the punch of the New Wave, nor the outright rejection of the classic forms that most originators of the movement were associated with; it sits somewhere in limbo, in the purgatorial middle.
The look of the film is ravishing (thanks to Criterion’s impeccable high-definition transfer of the black and white print), but something seems vacant. Perhaps it is the blank slate performance of Moreau, who is so sphinx-like in her quietly devastating star turn that one can never really get a sense of what her character’s motives are for just up and leaving, making empathizing with the “heroine” difficult. Malle quite studiously allows the actress to go to places that most actresses of the time were forbidden to visit: eroticism, brief nudity, chilliness, and haughtiness are integral to Jeanne’s psyche.
It is hard to not watch her, though, and she is filmed with a lingering, lived-in sexiness, but there is a feeling of vacuous emptiness that follows her wherever she lands. This sort of emotional desolation makes The Lovers just a touch inaccessible for most casual viewers. Fans of Malle, though, will no doubt drool over the crisp new packaging and artwork and the physically adventurous (for the time) performance of Moreau. She slinks and struts around in the most guarded, almost feline ways, pouts beautifully, and commands the screen with presence alone.
Sometimes less can be more with a performance, a value that is often overlooked in an era where make-up, prosthetics and histrionics automatically equal good acting. The complexities of Moreau’s iconoclastic performance lie mainly in the character’s lugubrious body language and her haute trappings – from the impervious hairstyling to the tailored couture, to the pearl necklace she wears during the film’s oft-discussed third act tryst.
The source material, an 18th century libertine novella by Dominique-Vivant Denon, originally adapted for the screen by Louise de Vilmorin of The Earrings of Madame de… fame, was re-written by Malle, specifically for Moreau, with whom he was having an affair at the time (the new edition includes a marvelous selection of archival interviews with the director, the principles, and even the fascinating author). What is so revolutionary about his re-visioning of the character (even going so far as to rename her with the star’s actual name), is that he refuses to pass judgment on Jeanne, and he makes it tougher for the audience to as well. Jeanne is yet another take on one of France’s most revered/reviled literary figures: Madame Bovary.
The complicated inner-workings of the woman are complimented by Malle’s deliberately sensual mise-en-scene. The white horse galloping, Moreau’s virginal white princess wardrobe, the nighttime garden rendezvous (the striking, true centerpiece of the film), and even the use of Brahms in the love scenes, all conspire to enrapture the viewer with sensorial delights, much like an adult fairytale. Malle’s wrapped up in the details of the film, though, and he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to neatly tie all of the loose ends together.
Malle’s preoccupation with the upper-crust of France is born from his direct involvement with high society in real life: he was the heir to a sugar empire born into a world of tremendous privilege and power. One could argue that without this upbringing, and access to this world, Malle as an artist might not have had such a strong point of view. Many of Malle’s filmic endeavors explore the sexuality and mystery of women, the allure of wealth, and the existential dilemmas of the bored rich class and what damage their decisions, often made on whims, can do to others. In The Lovers, though, there is no conscience to answer to, which is nice; to not be weighted down by a heavy-handed director’s personal morality. Malle is expertly detached.
At 24, he was the co-director of Jacques Cousteau’s 56 deep-sea feature The Silent World, and in a magnificent essay packaged with The Lovers, King’s College film studies professor Ginette Vincendeau points out that Malle often drew upon these singular real-life experiences, preferring to reflect, much in the style of a documentarian, what he was most familiar with. “Reflection”, in fact, is literally translated by Malle here through the use of the clever, subtle recurring motif of mirrors capturing minuscule glimpses of reality.
Whether or not the viewer believes Malle is simply resting on his laurels, experimenting with the medium, or truly creating art is left up to the individual, making for a viewing experience that is, at turns anachronistic, claustrophobic, enchanting, infuriating, and ghostly. The lyrical simplicity of The Lovers can lead to a dissection of its many deceptively captivating layers as well, and because of these many absorbing facets, the film stands the test of time. The only thing “obscene” about it is how beautiful the glowing Moreau is.