Director: Louis Malle
Starring: Jeanne Moreau, José Luis de Villalonga
Studio: Janus/The Criterion Collection 429
Video: 2.35:1 anamorphic/enhanced for 16:9, B&W
Audio: French, DD mono
Extras: Archival interviews with Louis Malle, Jeanne Moreau, José Luis de Villalonga, writer Louise de Vilmorin; Gallery of promo materials from the U.S. release; Booklet with printed essay by film historian Ginette Vincendeau
Length: 90 minutes
This was Malle’s follow-up to Elevator to the Gallows, which also starred Moreau (with a score by Miles Davis), and during the shoot Malle and Moreau were having a relationship. It shows off Moreau’s natural sexiness, and a totally different, more intelligent quality than Bardot’s. Film experts feel The Lovers’ style is halfway between traditional French films of the period and the New Wave films.
The film made quite a splash when brought into the U.S., because an exhibitor in Ohio received a stiff fine for showing the supposedly “obscene” film. Actually, it is very tame, with only the actor’s faces and hands shown during the sex scene. Later the Supreme Court reversed the obscenity charge. It may be the real controversy was over the fact that the restless wife abandons her young daughter and husband to run off with a young man she just discovers the night before. And unlike Madame Bovary and others, she doesn’t die or suffer for it – at least as far as we know.
Jeanne is the bored wife of a wealthy newspaper publisher in Dijon; she frequently runs off to Paris to see a girlfriend there and eventually to carry on an affair with an upper-class Spanish polo player. Her husband spends all his time at the newspaper and probably has an affair going with his assistant. The positions of the characters in society is shown by their cars: Raoul the polo player drives a sleek Jaguar, Jeanne drives a Peugeot convertible, and when it breaks down she is given a lift by a younger man driving a Citroen 2CV (the French equivalent of the VW bug) – and he drives it very slowly, driving Jeanne nuts. The husband becomes suspicious of his wife’s constant Paris trips and orders her to invite both her girlfriend and Raoul to their home in Dijon for a party. This is when his wife and Citroen-driver Bernard turn up, and he is also urged to stay. He’s related to one of the upper-class the others know, but distances himself for them all as a rebelling, intellectual, bohemian type.
Spoiler warning! (as if…): After the others have retired – to prepare to be awakened at 4 AM for a hunt – Jeanne walks out into their garden in the moonlight and Bernard is there too. From an impolite beginning the two suddenly are in each others’ arms, forging a passionate connection, which is furthered back in her bedroom – in spite of both her husband and lover being right down the hallway. Though not pornographic, their love scene shows us that Bernard is not only an anthropologist but also a cunning linguist. Next morning they buzz off in the 2CV while the others stand around jaws awry. The familiar French voiceover bit informs us that Jeanne is not always smiling now because she realizes she will be facing some challenges but remains steadfast in her decision.
– John Sunier