When French director Louis Malle made his second feature film, The Lovers, in 1958, he wasn’t courting controversy. His goal was to depict the romantic and sexual awakening of a character for whom an audience would normally not have much sympathy—a pampered, bored upper class wife, played by Jeanne Moreau. He got the idea when he ran across an obscure 18th century novel by Dominique Vivant, adapting it with the help of a successful current-day novelist, Louise de Vilmorin, and changing the time period to the 20th century. The result was more than the sum of its parts.
Moreau plays Jeanne Tournier, married to a newspaper publisher, with a young daughter, and living well in a beautiful country house. Her busy husband doesn’t pay much attention to her, and it’s obvious that she is tired of being married to him. From time to time she visits her best friend who lives in a nearby mansion, a place where she can also hook up with her lover, a famous Spanish polo player. It’s soon evident that she’s rather tired of him too.
The visual style and the dialogue seem clipped and dry, like the conversation of Jeanne’s empty Parisian friends. The film almost seems like a satire of the French upper class, except that Malle’s direction is subdued and the pace measured. Up until a certain point, watching The Lovers is like peeking through a window at the behavior of some very privileged people. But then, after one of her excursions, Jeanne’s car breaks down, and she is helped by a chance meeting with a handsome young archaeologist named Bernard, played by Jean-Marc Bory. He gives her a ride home, where she and her husband are having an extended weekend party, and so she invites him to come to the party and stay over if he wants.
This is one of the few films I’ve seen in which everything leads up to one important sequence, a sequence that defines the picture and gives it its reason for being. There’s practically no tension in the plot in terms of, “Will Jeanne sleep with Bernard?” because we pretty much know she will. What’s distinctive is the way it’s depicted by Malle and his cameraman, Henri Decaȅ. The man and the woman meet late at night in the garden. As their attraction grows more intense and they each become enraptured with each other, they move to a little boat that floats through the elaborate pool in the property’s enclosed yard. From the boat they eventually move to a lovely bedroom. The long sequence is deliciously romantic beyond anything I’ve ever seen. You know that nothing in real life could ever be this perfect, but Malle wasn’t interested in realism. He wanted to show an idealized scene of passion, fusing sensuality with emotionality to produce a unified, aesthetically beautiful effect. This is nothing like the kind of rubbish you’d encounter in Harleqiun romance novels, and this is because Malle focuses on creating a delicate, poetic visual sense while including very little talk. You might find yourself laughing a little at the idealization, but I’ll bet you still can’t take your eyes off the screen.
The owner of a movie theater in Ohio was arrested for obscenity when he showed this film. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, where they ruled that it was not pornography, therefore legal to be shown. You have to understand: there is no explicit sex or nudity in this film. Everything is merely suggested. But this was 1958, a long way from today. In any case, as you may have expected, the controversy turned The Lovers into a huge hit. Jeanne Moreau, with her unconventional beauty and sharp intelligence, was already a star in France at the time. But after this movie, she became a famous international star who could choose any role she wanted. And Louis Malle, who was only 26 at the time, went on to make many more great movies.
The Lovers is available on DVD.