**/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras A-
starring Jane March, Tony Leung, Frederique Meininger, Arnaud Giovaninetti
adapted by Gerard Brach, Jean-Jacques Annaud, based on the novel by Marguerite Duras
directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
By Bill Chambers
"What must have happened is: I try it on just for fun, look at myself in the shopkeeper's glass, and see that there, beneath the man's hat, the thin awkward shape, the inadequacy of childhood, has turned into something else. Has ceased to be a harsh, inescapable imposition of nature. Has become, on the contrary, a provoking choice of nature, a choice of the mind. Suddenly it's deliberate. Suddenly I see myself as another, as another would be seen, outside myself, available to all, available to all eyes, in circulation for cities, journeys, desire. I take the hat, and am never parted from it. Having got it, this hat that all by itself makes me whole, I wear it all the time."
That's author Marguerite Duras in the opening pages of her best-selling 1984 memoir L'Amant, describing the "brownish-pink fedora with a broad black ribbon" she wore as a girl of 15-and-a-half. If you remember anything about Jean-Jacques Annaud's eponymous 1992 feature-film adaptation The Lover (apart from its prurient reputation, that is), chances are it's that hat, which actually captures some of the mythic quality Duras is getting at in the above-quoted passage. Watching the recent Holler, I realized that when I think back on it, I will likely remember it not as a movie about scrappers living in poverty but as the one with the girl in the Steve Zissou-esque red-knit beanie. Hats are incredibly cinematic, bestowing story and subtext on an actor's face. Yet while the hat that 19-year-old newcomer and former teen cover girl Jane March wears in The Lover may strike the right note of self-assurance, the pigtails sticking out from under it combine to give her an Anne of Green Gables look that hardly contradicts "the inadequacy of childhood," and I think that's deliberate. From the get-go, she's not just exotic fruit, she's forbidden fruit. The Lover takes a short, discursive book without dialogue typical of the Hiroshima mon amour screenwriter and almost miraculously extrapolates a linear, if episodic, framework from it, but it leans into the sordid details that Duras almost glosses over.
Inevitably? This was the commercial appeal of the material, anyway, circa 1992, the year of Basic Instinct (whose explicitness set a precedent for The Lover's, er, hard-won R rating), when even studio programmers like Unlawful Entry and Single White Female exhibited an ease with sex and nudity bordering on European. The Lover reached American shores as if buoyed there on a zeitgeist wave by "the Long Island Lolita," Woody Allen cheating on Mia Farrow with Soon-Yi Previn, and a 17-year-old Drew Barrymore posing nude for INTERVIEW magazine.i This was also the draw for Annaud--who'd keenly depicted increasingly transgressive acts of intimacy in Quest for Fire (caveman sex) and The Name of the Rose (monk sex)--and co-screenwriter Gérard Brach, who not for nothing was Roman Polanski's most frequent collaborator.ii In any case, preying on underage women is a sadly common male fantasy that could still sell movie tickets as late as 2000, when American Beauty won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
And in the filmmakers' defense, the crux of the novel is a 15-and-a-half-year-old girl becoming the lover of a 27-year-old man, or maybe vice versa. (It's consensual in the book and film though a sign of the times that notions of what constitutes consent within that power dynamic don't come up.) But there's a world of difference between reading Duras's prose and having it filtered through the particularly male gaze of Annaud, Brach, and Emmanuelle II DP Robert Fraisse at this especially shameless point in history. Duras, for instance, frequently mentions a pair of gold lamé high heels that completed her Martian ensemble. She wears them everywhere while being aware of their narrow versatility. ("Going to school in evening shoes decorated with diamanté flowers," she writes with incredulity.) The Lover introduces "The Young Girl," March's nameless Duras surrogate, shoes-first as she disembarks a water bus. In the film, they're a soft black with a gold, patterned inlay and rhinestone studs; I can't decide if that's sexing them up or toning them down. The sun catches some frayed threads, but the larger point nevertheless seems lost when, moments later, the camera pans from a basket of piglets to the infamous fedora--its brim concealing March's eyes from view but not the curly contours of her wine-coloured lips--then returns to a close-up of her foot resting on a railing before doing a Bugs Bunny pan up her bare legs, back to the hat.
A jump cut and a change in lenses bring us closer to her face as she slowly tilts her head up, lifting the brim, Indiana Jones-style, off the beautiful, beautiful brown eyes that launched a thousand copies of JUST SEVENTEEN magazine--at least one of which found its way into Annaud's hands, leading him to scout her for The Lover. Then: a telescopic-bordering-on-microscopic pan down her braids to her bustline, an extreme close-up of one of the shoes, and a wide angle from behind of her leaning over the railing in which her rear end is the bull's-eye in the middle of the frame. When Duras talks about her hat and her shoes, she's talking about identity: They reveal to her the signals she's projecting as a woman in bloom and aid her in calibrating them. Though it's possible the filmmakers were striving for a cinematic equivalent to Duras's obsessive focus on accessories with this montage, it plays more like a conventional celluloid dissection of a beautiful woman for fetishistic scrutiny. She's the prize hog at the county fair, and the camera's the judge. (Suddenly those baby pigs make sense.) It feels like foreplay.
March's casting unfortunately exacerbates that pornographic cynicism. It's not that she has a more blatant, more voluptuous glamour than her real-life counterpart (in the period photo that graces the cover of L'Amant, Duras reminds of a young Lillian Gish), it's that at this point in her career, she's a model-turned-actress with an emphasis on the former. So many of her love scenes with co-star Tony Leung (the Leung known as "Big Tony," Tony Ka Fai Leung) are a complex tango across cultural boundaries in violation of social norms, but March's wooden delivery gives them the hollow tenor of the role-playing fantasies that have become predominant in this age of taboo-on-demand. One of the movie's more peculiar missteps is to turn a section of Duras's prose that comes from decades of soul-searching into a monologue for the Young Girl to launch into postcoitally. "I'm always a little sad," she says. "I'm like my mother. When I told her I'd be a writer, she shrugged. She said it's not work, it's a childish idea." Let's start with the obvious: she's not a writer! Not yet, anyway. It's a font of precocious introspection that betrays a lack of confidence in any actress to plant the seeds of Duras's biography without exposition, and the fact that March is naked the entire time she delivers this soliloquy betrays a lack of confidence in March specifically to sell even this For Dummies version of the character without tricking us into being riveted.
"The Chinaman"iii nervously approaches the Young Girl one day after she gets off the bus from school. He offers her a cigarette. She declines. He tells her it's surprising to see a young, white girl on a native bus. Because they're in Saigon circa 1930, she is equally surprised to learn he's Chinese. He compliments her hat and her beauty, telling her, in a garbled echo of Duras, that she can do anything she likes. They're colonial legacies with a certain amount of privilege in common--he comes from wealth, while she enjoys the perqs of her mother's job as headmistress of the Sa Dec School, including free boarding and servants--but they're hardly tailor-made for each other. What they are is desperate to rebel in some fashion against their respective families and perhaps feel like the adults they're not allowed to be, for reasons more obvious in her case than in his. The Chinaman is, arguably, no mere Humbert Humbert, helpless before jailbait; the implication in the book and film, albeit slightly muted in the latter, is that he's too timid to hit on someone closer to his age, someone with enough life experience to see through his veneer of prestige. In one of the few scenes that really crackles (as well as one of the few where March's gormlessness is an asset), the Young Girl and the Chinaman are refuelling at a restaurant after a marathon of sex, and she speaks to him with such naive, ghoulish candour ("My brother, he'd kill you. Imagine, me with a Chinaman!") that when she asks him if it's true non-virginal women in the colonies can't land a husband, as her mother claims, he smiles coolly and says:
Yes. Your mother's right. It's no longer possible after that dishonour. For instance, if I wanted to marry you, well, this would not be allowed. We can't tolerate the idea of that. I'm Chinese. I'm sorry, now that you've done that with me, marriage between us would be impossible.
The Young Girl then delivers this "cheque, please" suplex: "Well then, it's for the best then, Chinese. I don't like the Chinese very much." Her cruelty isn't intentional, at first; she's just a teenager, one without a frame of reference--and therefore an undeveloped sense of reverence--for this sort of arrangement. Then it's completely intentional, for more or less the same reasons. The half-life of this interaction on the Chinaman is significant: Ego bruised, his lovemaking style subsequently takes on a sadistic edge, and he starts trying too hard to impress her. When he treats her rotten family to a lavish supper, her mother (Frederique Meininger) and two brothers (Arnaud Giovaninetti and Melvil Poupad) refuse to show him an ounce of respect or gratitude. And under their toxic influence, neither does the Young Girl. In that moment, he is insurmountably Chinese. The Chinaman is pitiful, first for wanting to fuck a child, then for caring what she thinks when they're not fucking--in other words, for falling in love with her. Annaud understands men, both what they like and what they're like, the same way he understands neanderthals and bears--which is to say, very well indeed. I do wonder if Leung isn't ultimately miscast. Looking fit in his ice-cream suits, he's not exactly the scrawny opium addict we meet in the book, yet there is something else: he's hopelessly dignified, even when The Lover is heaping humiliations on him. Maybe that's a virtue in a film that is otherwise uninterested in providing its most visible minorityiv any redeeming qualities.
There is an irksome sequence near the end of The Lover that Duras only alludes to in L'Amant in which the Chinaman, the proverbial prodigal son, pays a visit to his father seeking permission to marry the Young Girl. It not only shows a vaguely sexist disregard for the novel's subjectivity (this, after going to the trouble of having Jeanne Moreau give voice to the latter-day Duras through narration), but also results in the filmmakers making up the not-insignificant detail that the Chinaman's father sits around smoking opium all day--a weird bit of conjecture, considering he's a powerful real estate tycoon. Although I've watched too much grindhouse sleaze to take offense at The Lover, it's the poster child for the kind of tony trash that used to get intellectuals on its side by provoking the censors, and I can't say I'm nostalgic for the Boomer glibness it tries to pass off as a clear-eyed vision of the world. Some contemporary reviews praised it for its unsentimentality, but the "Lowenstein, Lowenstein" bathos of the denouement leaves one asking if the rest isn't merely a failed attempt at sentimentality. The perfect stopping point comes moments before besides, when the Young Girl departs for France on a ship and spots the Chinaman's black limousine on the dock. We imagine the Chinaman in the backseat, picking her out of the crowd by her inexplicable fedora. It's interesting that these two symbols, the hat and the car, carry enough gendered weight to make this an effective goodbye, though whether that's profound or reductive I cannot say.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Capelight Pictures, a German label that has begun distributing Pathé titles in the U.S. and Canada via MPI, brings The Lover to 4K Ultra HD disc in a Collector's Edition packaged in a gorgeous digibook with an English-language liner essay on the production by Peter Osteried, author of several German-language film books. The 1.85:1, 2160p image sparkles like the sun-dappled surface of the Mekong thanks to a happy marriage of HDR with Fraisse's magic-hour lighting. (Dolby Vision and HDR 10+ are both included; I audited the latter.) I don't know if the source of this transfer was the original negative, but I suspect The Lover hasn't looked so pristine and luminous since it spooled out of the camera. With memories of prior home-video releases in mind, it was a shock, initially, to encounter a film that isn't suffocating under a dense patina of gold: The wider colour gamut advances the movie's palette beyond the accompanying Blu-ray (which is quite strong) and well beyond what was available before. The foliage here is lushly verdant, the classroom walls are a bright blue, and the water bus is taxi yellow, drawing a stronger correlation to a school bus.
That said, there is something funny going on in a two-shot of March and Leung with the sky behind them at the 15:00 mark, a pronounced ringing effect around March's face that could be the result of edge-enhancement but isn't there on the Blu-ray. I suspect the high dynamic range had become something of a juggling act between the bright background and March's properly-exposed face, leading to the use of a picture window to adjust them individually. The only other caveat I would offer is that many of the interior scenes are grainy and flat, clearly as a result of eschewing non-natural light sources: HDR is pushing the shadows to reveal picture info that simply isn't there. Still, the indefatigably tactile level of detail throughout makes up for it. Fans of The Lover should rejoice that their unlikely favourite is available in a vibrant presentation that's mostly state-of-the-art.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is a seemingly faithful rendition of The Lover's Dolby SR mix boasting impressively clear and resonant dialogue that can also sound a little disembodied at times. The surround and LFE channels sporadically blossom to life with ambient effects (rainfall and the like) while lending support, if not weight, to Gabriel Yared's Chopin-inflected score. The same supplementary material appends the 4K and standard Blu-rays, starting with a 53-minute "Making-of" (on-screen title: "Jean-Jacques Annaud tourne L'amant") credited to three people--Sylvie Barillaud, Pierre-André Boutang, and Jacques Mény--and dating back, like all of these special features, to 1992, hence their 4:3 aspect ratio and 480p resolution. Now's a good time to mention that the extras are all in French with English subtitles (save the English-language deleted scenes), and, like The Lover's own optional English subtitles, the occasional typo, malapropism, and punctuation error undoubtedly reflects the intervention of German in the transcription/translation pipeline.
As for that making-of, it's pretty great. Annaud talks about turning down The Lover when it was first offered to him for the curious reason that he got along sensationally with Umberto Eco on The Name of the Rose and didn't want to push his luck by pairing up with another novelist in Duras. ("I knew Marguerite was not very sociable.") Calling her book "a sonata set against the symphonic background of colonial Asia," Annaud says he relented because he wanted to do a dirty movie. Am I paraphrasing? Barely. Annaud tours Vietnam, where the film was indeed shot, and notes that his presence as a white European is causing "real turmoil" in the villages. He aims to familiarize himself with Indochina before filming begins; the cities are in ruins, but the prewar French architecture is still standing, making his job of travelling back in time that much easier. He finds Duras's old school and even connects with someone who was a friend of her lover "Le" at the time but wasn't aware that "Mademoiselle Donnadieu" had grown up to be a world-famous writer. Incidentally, the friend looks suspiciously like Xiem Mang, who plays the Chinaman's father but never appeared in anything else. I don't know if it's him. The search for someone to play the Young Girl is covered in some depth, complete with footage of unidentified actresses answering the cattle call. (I spotted Fairuza Balk, Samantha Mathis, and Milla Jovovich among them. (Annaud casting a net for actresses 15-18 years old does not sit well in retrospect.)) I don't want to recap the whole thing; suffice it to say, this is a frank and meaty documentary bound to entertain cinephiles no matter how they feel about The Lover proper.
"Interview with Novelist Marguerite Duras and Director Jean-Jacques Annaud" (13 mins.) opens with a darkly funny written disclaimer that Duras had emerged from a coma only six weeks before this meeting took place at Duras's home in January of 1990. Annaud is meeting Duras for the first time here and they are eager to swap research material concerning Hélène Lagonelle. A classmate who awakens the Young Girl's bisexuality, Hélène is a key part of the novel, and all the most graphic descriptions are of Duras's desires when she's around her. I haven't mentioned her because she disappears early from the film and doesn't leave a substantial afterimage, and after seeing the eagerness with which Duras shows Annaud a picture of Hélène I thought that was a mistake. ("I was crazy about her," Duras says.) But the longer this fascinating piece went on, the more I realized Duras may have had second thoughts about dragging Hélène into her erotic fantasies for public consumption. It's possible that Annaud was doing her a solid in downplaying the character--though in the film and in the 9-minute block of deleted scenes, Hélène (Lisa Faulkner) does manage to appear au naturel, which becomes the equivalent of women showering next to one another in a prison movie. Anyone who came to the novel as a queer text should probably brace for disappointment in this hetero-normalized adaptation.
Those "Unreleased Scenes," by the by, are in fact outtakes from The Lover, complete with slates, that bring alternate angles and line readings to light. It's a privileged glimpse inside the filmmaking process, no doubt, but in the absence of annotations it might as well be a flat-pack without instructions. Three "Picture Galleries"--"On Set," "Filming Locations," and "Marguerite Duras and Jane March"--offer animated slideshows, the latter consisting of photos of March in her Duras costume posing with various copies of L'Amant from around the world. Rounding out the 4K platter are two HiDef trailers for The Lover (one of them silent save for Yared's music) plus HD trailers for three upcoming Capelight titles: Infidelity, The Concubine, and Dream Factory. The attendant Blu-ray adds previews for Bound (SD) and A River Runs Through It (HD).
115 minutes; R; UHD: 1.85:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision|HDR 10+, BD: 1.85:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French 5.1 DTS-HD MA, German 2.0 LPCM; English, French, Spanish, German subtitles; UHD: BD-100, BD: BD-50; Region-free; Capelight
i Earlier that summer, Barrymore seduced the much, much older Tom Skerritt in Poison Ivy and would go on to play Amy Fisher, the Long Island Lolita herself, in the obligatory TV movie less than a year later.
ii Without Annaud or Polanski, Brach also scripted L'Idole, a sort of funhouse-mirror version of The Lover in which young, vivacious Leelee Sobieski gives an elderly Chinese man (the great James Hong) a rather terminal case of blue balls.
iii "Hate that literary conceit," I said to our own Walter Chaw. "Just call him Bob." Ever the voice of wisdom, Walter replied: "Sets a colonial atmosphere to it all, though."
iv March is actually Eurasian but the film assigns her Duras's French ancestry.