The Lover (1992) dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud writ. Gerard Brach [based on the novel by Marguerite Duras] cine. Robert Fraisse edt. Noelle Boisson music Gabriel Yared art/design Thang At Hoang costumes Yvonne Sassinot De Nesle
star. Jane March (French girl), Tony Leung (Chinaman), Frederique Meininger (mother), Arnaud Giovainetti (older brother), Melvil Poupaud (younger brother), Lisa Faulkner (Helene), Xem Mang (Chinaman's father)
Jean Moreau (narrator)
RENN/BURRILL/A 2 co-production
MGM Avant-Garde Cinema 115 mins
Vietnam Mon Amour
Ladies... you know you had another life, one in which romance and desperation were your fate. You're 15, almost 16, a loner in a lonely land. You're on a small ferry, just about to cross the turbid waters of the Mekong... yes, you're in Vietnam, French Vietnam, back before the colonial dream all went to hell. You're leaning on the rail, one foot hooked on the scupper, a girl dreaming of being a woman. As the peasants swarm aboard with their bicycles, carts and livestock, a large black Citroen C 6 limo eases itself slowly onto the deck. Already you're being observed by its hidden occupant.
And what does he see? A French girl in a cotton dress, a school girl with a loose girdle and rhinestone cabaret shoes... her pigtails partially concealed by her favorite hat, a man's Fedora. Forget the pouting mouth and slim adolescent figure. Think of dream, think of Freud.
As the ferry starts moving out, the chauffeur steps down, opens the rear door... a man emerges, an oriental man in a white suit. He leans on the railing nearby. He glances your way, takes a gold cigarette case from his jacket, flips it open, offers you one... naturally, you don't smoke... and just as naturally, you know this routine is merely a prelude....
And so it starts... although, actually, we've been chauffeured into this action by the writer, an older woman who is sitting somewhere in Paris writing this story. Based on the "autobiographical" novel by Marguerite Duras, The Lover lingers somewhere between the sentimentality of doomed love and the flesh-eating horniness of sexophilia. Behind this, though, is a political gestalt of the French and Chinese colonialists in Vietnam. Prejudice is cultural, destiny ancestral. Recall that Duras wrote the script for Resnais' famous deconstructivist paen of western guilt, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), where again we see her familiar story of forbidden love in an interracial context. A grim montage of nuclear anxiety, Hiroshima is more like a photo-essay than a drama. But...
...not so The Lover. Director Annaud and scenarist Brach never allow the background politics to overwhelm the sensuality... or the landscape the characters. Yet The Lover is a beautifully photographed film, where the surrounding squalor simply heightens the exotic elegance of the lovers. Fact is, we can never rest easy in anyone's arms after seeing the superb skin of Tony Leung and Anne March. Is it pornography? If pornography is sex that we watch, then yes. Is it art? If art is the sexual perception of an object, then yes. Can pornography be art? If you've ever made love in a dream....
The black car is speeding along the dykes and dusty roads towards Saigon. You're in the back with this stranger. He's twice your age... and Chinese. This is dangerous stuff. But what the hell... you're young, starting to crank. You have breasts, legs and hands... and you want to use them. You have no father, your brother is a sadist, your mother a doting old schoolteacher in a swamp up country. You exchange banalities. He confesses he has no job, no prospects... his father is an opium addict who hasn't left his bed in ten years since the death of his wife. Do you care? No. You dream of writing novels in which you revenge yourself on your brother, your brutal, psychopathic brother. You watch the landscape flow past... villages, rice paddies, needle forests, horizons. His hand moves timidly to meet yours... first a finger touch, then a hand... finally, like a full sexual embrace, his fingers interlock with yours.
Gerard Brach got his big break as a screen writer working with Polanski... and The Lover is the sort of film we would expect Polanski to make. The Lover seems an odd project for Annaud [Quest For Fire, Name Of The Rose, et. al.], especially when viewed in tandem with his follow-up, The Bear (1994). As Brach wrote the screenplay for this too, we might wonder if there are any similarities. Ludicrous? The Bear is about an orphan grisly pup trying to survive in the British Columbia wilderness when hunting was a career and environmentalism non-existent. Stripped of setting, though, both stories are the same: survival of a young free spirit in a dangerous world.
looking towards the mountains... and the sky of Siam
While there is no mention of the crash of '29 and the subsequent world-wide economic depression, both characters are affected by bigger events in the bigger world. Perhaps the pivotal scene is where the lovers discuss their hopeless situation at a ruined plantation on the edge of a mud desert... perhaps the former property of her parents. "My mother was killed by the land registry agents and robbed by government officials," she says, looking towards the mountains and the sky of Siam. The dawn wind moves the palms. Yes, he went to his father, told him the situation. His father said, "I would rather see you dead than know you were with a white girl." His father, the opium addict. His father, a financial patrician from the 1 million Chinese minority in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese are merely background in this movie... rickshaw runners, market vendors, paddy workers, servants... landscape. The lovers represent the two competing colonial cultures. The Chinese, of course, ruled Vietnam for a 1,000 years ("Indo-China")... and financed and supplied the communist Vietminh in their fight with the French. The French divided Vietnam into two (North & South) in 1954... to little avail as history as shown. Now they only go there to make movies.
The Chinaman, though, has his problems. His family was displaced by the Japanese in Manchuria. While his father profited by selling his lands and jewels to them, it seems this led to his mother's death. We're not directly informed of the circumstances, must infer them from conversational fragments. We know, of course, that Japan occupied Manchuria in 1931 following years of meddling and fighting with Russia over domination in the region. Trapped by the Buddhist code of ancestor worship, he can do nothing but follow the dictates of his father. While this seems absurd in today's mobile, secular society, things were much different then. As a character, he presents a curious paradox of cultural passivity and animal vitality. His manners are, yes, impeccable. His generosity outstanding. His integrity... well, the seduction of a young school girl might be distasteful, yet the historical and cultural context is quite different from, say, the lavicious paedophilia of H.H. in Lolita. As it turns out, it's quite possible that he is the one who was seduced.
Your boarding school is like an orphanage, where little French Madelines and their half-caste sisters cluster in mosquito tents within long, humid dormitories. Your friend Helene walks naked, a model without an artist, joins you in your tent, tells you about Alice, a classmate who has been slipping over the wall in the evenings, prostituting herself with the passing men. You smile, say, "It's always appealed to me... going with someone you don't know."
You pass through the gate, leave the school, briefcase in hand. You're walking below palms in the dusky light... and there he is, the big black car, parked. What is there to say? He takes you to "the Bachelor Room", a street-level apartment in a rough Chinese district. Slatted windows, green deco armchair, table... and the bed. The ruckus of the street is close, immediate. He says he can't do this, you're too small... but you, working with the intuition of an ancient talent, help him get past his charming apprehension.
sexual attraction and the perception of art
This film is about sex, make no mistake. It's about sex and the politics of sex... and politics are in some measure about the manufacturing of lies. Lies only exist when we are afraid of some raw, defining truth. The ease with which the French girl lies to her family is typical of sexual hunger and the need to conceal its ritual. Brother Pierre knows better, of course. When he sees the diamond ring, he knows. Why would this Chinaman give his sister the diamond belonging to his dead mother? Sex. He grabs her discarded panties from her bed, sniffs them, says, "Smells of Chinese..." The humour here slides past in the black absurdity. They fight, as hate is a condition of poverty. His mother can never give him enough money, and now his sister is the provider.
We see only brief moments of this unhappy family as they struggle to exist on the income of a rural schoolteacher. The mother favors the brutish elder son in an unreasonable and pathetic fashion. Why this is so, she doesn't know. When the family is invited to dinner at a restaurant in Saigon, the crux of the matter is clearly defined. The affair must not be mentioned. Call it pride, call it racism, call it dumb... but for some, identity can only be maintained by taboo. The impoverished French get drunk, behave badly. The brutish brother challenges the Chinaman to fight... but he merely defers, like a monk with no regard for the material world. Yet the material world is where they are.
Afterwards, the lovers retire to the Bachelor Room. It's now time for some grudge sex. He's angry, because good manners and Confucious can only take you so far. He backhands her, rips her panties off, goes straight to work. As we watch, we have to admit this young girl is quite good at the art of whorish detachment.
She: How much would this cost you in a brothel... what we just did, I mean.
He: How much do you want?
She: My mother needs 500 piasters....
To pay the boarding school, apparently. When is a mistress a whore, or simply a lover? The power in the relationship is constantly shifting. Her mother, in a moment of truth, asks her, "Do you only go with him for the money?" and she replies, "Yes." Her mother nods, although her expression reveals that she knows otherwise.
The monsoon rains hammer down... and in the blue Bachelor's Room he tells her that he is to be married. He's now smoking opium, just like his father... imprisoned and desexualized by convention, astral travel is his only means of escape. What's the bride like... is she pretty? "She's rich," he says. "Covered with gold and jade and diamonds...." He could be describing a temple idol. The French girl takes this all in stride, has only one request, that he meets her one final time one week after the marriage. Does he show up? Or does the rigid racial lock of ancient culture still hold him hostage.... Well, this can be said: a lover always has a way of reappearing.
If you believe Marguerite Duras.
Throughout, the cinematography/visual design is superb. The symbolisms are always oblique, subtle details in the action. For example, the woman in white [the Administrator's wife, another pussy fatale] in the back of another limo, always travelling in the opposite direction, boarding the ferry when the French girl is disembarking... or vice versa. Or when the French girl puts her lips against the glass of the limo window, forms a kiss to which he responds... two people reaching out from different solitudes, different cultures. Or the failed plantation, with the broken dams....
The moods, too, are very sympathetic to the emotional core of the story. The rains internalize the action, mythologize the sex. The dusky light, the sense of memory, things remembered, fantabulized. As characters, the lovers act almost in contradiction to their gender: he, fashionably dressed, the trembling lover; she, casually dressed, the ambiguous lover. She seems older, almost cynical. He was in love... but was she? The ocean liner moves out of frame, leaving a contrail of black smoke above the waves, which gradually fades... time, memory, reality.
Yes, you're a writer, living in Paris. You smoke cigarettes now, your lizard eyes masqued by heavy glasses. You'll win a big prize for this confession, the Prix de Goncourt. You'll do it the old way, pen on paper:
"One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place, a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: "I've known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you're more beautiful now than then. Rather your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged."
© LR 5/02
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