Les Amants

July 24, 2008

Louis Malle, often referred to as being tangential to the French Nouvelle Vague, made the polarizing Les Amants (The Lovers) in 1958, when Godard and Truffaut were still critics at Cahiers du cinema, and Chabrol was just getting started (in the commentary, Malle observes that The Lovers was released between Chabrol’s first two films). Screened at the Venice Film festival, it caused a huge uproar by the Italians who scandalized the film for its blunt and tasteless “sex” scenes, and it later received similar receptions back home in France.

Ginette Vincendeau, in her essay accompanying the DVD, says, “Fifty years on, it may be hard to understand the shock waves The Lovers created with its “frank” depiction of a woman’s sexual pleasure, but in the context of late-1950s France, it was a bombshell, all the more so as Malle embedded his portrait of a woman’s “liberation” within a trenchant satire of the high bourgeoisie.”

This is precisely what caused the ruckus in Italy, France and the US (where the manager of a theater in Ohio was accused of screening obscenity, and the case was subsequently taken to court). Now it might be the fact that audiences everywhere were appalled by the character Jeanne’s (played by Jeanne Moreau) perfidious affair with a stranger in her own house, but what really drove them over the hill was the fact that the film applauded her for it. The film defended her right to sabotage her marriage and her child, to seek a new life, hesitant and uncertain about the future, yet unrepentant, with a complete stranger, shunning even her “socially acceptable” lover.

In Germany, apparently, scenes containing her child were removed, to make Jeanne appear less harsh and mercurial; but as Malle explains, this would render the entire purpose of the film useless, since without the child, Jeanne really is giving up nothing. It is only when she considers the child, and even after that decides to leave her stale bourgeoisie life behind, has she really undergone a transformation – from the mother of a loving child and the wife of a loveless husband to the lover of a bohemian wayfarer.

Ginette writes beautifully about Jeanne Moreau’s rising role in the Nouvelle Vague (Moreau later went on to play a tempestuous woman handling two lovers in one of the central films of the Wave, Truffaut’s Jules et Jim):

“This rebirth is indeed self-consciously reiterated in Jeanne’s transformation in The Lovers, from artificial, frivolous creature to “existentially” sensuous woman. Bernard tells her “I love you because you are different.” From her huge close-up at the opening of Elevator to the Gallows, Moreau was at the center of a shift in the representation of female eroticism, from the body to the face (even the sex scene in The Lovers avoids showing her body). Her face connoted interiority, her full, slightly down-turned lips gave her a proud, independent allure. Moreau brought to the cinema a new type of glamour, less overtly sexy than Bardot, more cerebral – she was known offscreen as a cultured woman, in tune with the new art cinema. With Moreau, the “new woman” of the New Wave had arrived.”


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