Friday, September 2, 2016

Louis Malle | Les Amants (The Lovers)

from darkness into light
by Douglas Messerli

Louise de Vilmorin (screenplay, based on the novel Point de Lendemain by Dominique Vivant), Louis Malle (director) Les Amants (The Lovers) / 1958

When Louis Malle’s film The Lovers first premiered in the US in 1959, people were scandalized by its open sexuality; a theater manager in Cleveland Heights, Ohio was arrested and convicted for the public depiction of obscene material. Appealing to the United States Supreme Court, Nico Jacobellis won, with the court finding the film was not pornographic, but there was no agreement among justices about what might constitute pornography or whether or not it was even illegal. Perhaps Justice Potter Stewart expressed the opinion best in his now famous opinion: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

       Today, in fact, the lovemaking in question is so innocent that we can observe far more steamier scenes on daytime television, although surely, to many Americans, the story of a beautiful, wealthy woman (Jeanne Moreau)—married to newspaper editor, Henri Tournier—who has an affair with her friend’s polo-playing boyfriend, Raoul Flores (José Luis de Vilallonga) and later spends a night with a much younger dinner guest, Bernard Dubois-Lambert (Jean-Marc Bory) for whom she leaves her negligent husband and beloved daughter, Malle’s film might still raise hackles. Malle was only 26 at the time this film was released, about the age of his anthropology student hero. 
       If the plot is thin—and it is—the actors make up for it, particularly the ever evocative Moreau, her best friend, Maggy (Judith Magre), the sauve de Vilallonga, and the highly romantic Bory. Moreover, whatever this love triangle suffers in tension, Malle’s and Henri Decaë’s beautiful cinematography makes up for it. Particularly the scenes in which Moreau, traveling from Paris to her home Dijon speeds through avenues of plane trees, Malle’s camera demonstrates by the darkness of the trees masking the light behind why Madame Turnier feels so trapped and spends so much time in France’s capital city. 
     Henri (Alain Cuny), moreover, makes a perfect villain, a man so caught up in his work that even when his stylishly dressed wife makes a sudden inexplicable visit to his workplace, with its massive presses running full speed, that he couldn’t care less, sending a secretary out to intercept his wife Jeanne as she dodges the woman—who for all she knows has a closer relationship to her husband than she does—to confront him, yet cannot find the words to say anything but that she is lonely, and quickly leaves.

      But, it is particularly when, late for her own dinner party after having invited her friends to Dijon, she meets Bernard that the film truly becomes interesting. Despite of her own desperation to get home in time for the event, her car breaks down, and she is forced to catch a ride with the young man. The wonder of the entire sequence of events is that, if she is furious to move forward in time at high speeds in order to get nowhere, Dubois-Lambert drives slowly, insistent about stopping off in a small village to visit a former professor on his birthday. Obviously, he is caring, solid, steady—all in opposition to her insistence to keep up with the social fray, which is also, of course, which keeps drawing her to Paris and to her—so we hear from the young anthropologist—“empty headed” Maggy.

      It is only in the final night scene, however, when Jeanne and Bernard spend the night together in a small boat, that we also realize that this young man is incredibly tender and loving. Perhaps the scenes on the boat and after when the two make love—as I mentioned, quite chastely—seemed so scandalous because the actors truly seem to really be in love and unembarrassed in their actions; in these scenes we do not see actors pretending to be making love, but lovers who just happen to be actors. Truffaut described these loves scenes as “the cinema’s first night of love”—an overstatement, perhaps, but close to the truth. Malle shows the pair in various sensuous positions, obviously in the whirl of dizziness that good sex for the first time often carries with it, while moving his camera through what appears to be a gauzy haze of romance. 
      Certainly it is enough for Jeanne, who the next morning packs her bags and takes off for a completely unknown territory with the young student, realizing that, if nothing else, it will certainly be better than the duplicitous life she has been living.    
      Finally, Malle’s film is a highly moral one. As he, himself, described was he was attempting to do in this film: “I wanted to devote an entire film to the study of a woman who gives up a routine of the usual morality for a higher morality of self-realization.” If this is pornography, so is everything.

Los Angeles, September 2, 2016

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