Director: Louis Malle
Even though Louis Malle was a contemporary of Truffaut, Godard, and Resnais and began directing films in the late 1950s, just as the New Wave began to dominate French filmmaking, I've never really thought of him as part of that movement. His first movie, Elevator to the Gallows (1957), with its nod to the anarchy of American films like They Live by Night and Gun Crazy in its subplot of young punks on a crime spree, did bear a resemblance to the early work of Godard and Truffaut. But his next projects were all quite different from one another—what David Thomson refers to as his "moving rather aimlessly from one subject to another"—and for the rest of his long career he never seemed to settle into a favored theme or easily identifiable style. The Lovers strikes me as almost his version of the Douglas Sirk women's pictures of the 1950s and reminds me in some ways of the film I think of as the archetypal Sirk movie of that kind, All That Heaven Allows.
The credits of The Lovers open over a map, which looks as though it might date from an earlier century, of an estate with a large lake labeled Lac de l'Indifférence in the the middle (the Criterion website identifies this as the Carte du tendre, "a 'map' of amorous relations drawn by Madeleine de Scudéry in the seventeenth century"), and with sensuous music of Brahms playing on the soundtrack. In some ways, the movie plays like an update of a romantic novel of the 19th century—Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, for example. (According to various sources, the film is loosely derived from a French novel, Point de Lendemain by Dominique Vivant, published in 1777.) In The Lovers, Jeanne Moreau plays a character not unlike Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina, Jeanne Tournier, the young wife of an older man, Henri Tournier (Alain Cuny), the publisher of the major newspaper in Dijon. Trapped in a dull, loveless marriage to a man engrossed in his career and marooned in a remote country house, Jeanne is the epitome of the bored, neglected, and aimless upper middle-class housewife.
She has a daughter whom she appears to love, but who is cared for largely by her nanny. The house, almost a mini-château, is her husband's family home staffed by longtime family servants, and she has little to do with the running of it, her role limited to things like planning the menus. She lives for her frequent visits to Paris, where she stays with her rich friend Maggy doing the things idle women of their social class do to pass the time—shopping for clothes, getting her hair done, going to nightclubs, and carrying on an affair with Raoul Flores (José Villalonga), a polo player. When Jeanne's husband persuades her to invite Maggy and Raoul for the weekend, the scene seems to be set for a country weekend psychodrama. But the unforeseen happens when Jeanne's car breaks down on the way home on the day her friends are to arrive, and unable to get it repaired, she accepts a ride home from a young archaeologist, Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory), whom her husband invites to spend the night also.
Malle and Moreau emphasize the satiric possibilities in Jeanne and her lifestyle, painting a sardonically exaggerated picture of a vapid woman living a life of mindless consumerism. Appropriately, this part of the film minimizes narrative incident to concentrate instead on surfaces and appearances, and as photographed by the great Henri Decaë, those appear immaculately polished and ordered. Jeanne's house looks like an illustration from a glossy coffee table book on the traditional French country house, and Moreau, costumed and coiffed in the most chic manner imaginable, looks sensational. Her style-worshiping Jeanne, preoccupied with her image, what she calls her genre, is at once ridiculous and pathetic—ridiculous in her obsession with the superficial, pathetic in her blindness to the shallowness and aridity of her life. Her devotion to the trivial reaches its fullest and most comic expression on the way back to her home with Bernard—he refuses to drive any faster, saying "J'ai horreur de la vitesse" (I have a dread of speed)—in her petulant agitation that she will be late for the arrival of her best friend and lover.
That evening, when Jeanne, feeling vaguely unsettled, wanders outside for a moonlight stroll dressed in her nightgown and still wearing her pearls from dinner, she unexpectedly encounters the hunky young intellectual who until now has only irritated her with his nonconformity and his ridicule of her bourgeois values. As he pursues her through the garden, the atmosphere becomes charged with a surging current of eroticism, and her dislike of him gradually transforms into something she at first doesn't acknowledge but soon surrenders herself to: sexual attraction. At this point the film switches gears completely and becomes a voluptuous, ultra-romantic love story with a seduction in a rowboat on that ironically named Lake of Indifference, followed by a night of rapturous lovemaking in Jeanne's room. The sudden, almost disjunctive tonal contrast between this part of the film and what preceded it is the one element of The Lovers that places it squarely in the tradition of the New Wave.
Even with the floridly romantic tone of this part of the movie, it's obvious that Jeanne's attraction to Bernard is not only emotional but strongly physical and that the main thing missing from her life, and which until this point she seems to have been completely unaware of, is sexual fulfillment. Today this may seem innocuous enough, but in the 1950s it was sufficient to make The Lovers highly controversial, causing a stir both when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival and when it opened commercially in France. In the U.S. it was banned in Ohio, becoming the subject of a court case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturned the ban. The sex isn't even explicit (although there is a clear suggestion that Bernard introduces Jeanne to oral sex), but that, combined with the subversive idea that women actually have sex drives like men, was enough to make the film as notorious as D. H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterly's Lover had been in its day.
If this kind of plot was hardly new territory for the movies, the attitudes expressed in the film were. In the movies, a woman who behaved in this way—who abandoned her husband, children, and stable middle-class existence for the thrill of a sexual fling—typically had to pay for her transgression of prevailing societal values. Sexual fulfillment was shown to be transient and ultimately meaningless, and the affair was fated to end badly. Malle was having none of this, though. In The Lovers, sexual fulfillment is equated with emotional fulfillment, and at the conclusion of the film Jeanne tells us that even if it doesn't last, she doesn't care. Ultimately, the most shocking thing to viewers in the 1950s might not have been the film's candor about sexuality, but the threat implicit in its rejection of the traditional notion that women achieve satisfaction through marriage, children, and conformity to the chaste and repressive behavioral ideals of the time.