Directed by Louis Malle
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 90 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 French
MSRP: $ 29.95
Release Date: May 13, 2008
Review Date: April 28, 2008
The worldwide success of Louis Malle’s The Lovers put both him and star Jeanne Moreau on the international map while at the same time causing considerable scandal for its erotic and vilifying overtones. Seen today, of course, its sexual content is G-rated and is much more quietly sensual than overtly sexual. What’s still shocking about the film now is the female protagonist’s seduction to the thought of “love at first sight.” Given her personality and her carefree and careless sense of whimsy, perhaps her ultimate decision shouldn’t be such a surprise. Still, for the times, one can imagine the shock to the audience about what occurs during this picture.
Jeanne Tournier (Jeanne Moreau) is a spoiled, selfish wife and mother, trapped in a rather sterile marriage of eight years and removed from the gaiety of Paris while enduring her comfortable but tedious life in the outer provinces. She’s been having a secret affair with playboy Raoul Florès (José Luis de Villalonga) in Paris on the pretext of visiting her longtime friend Maggy (Judith Magre) each weekend. Jeanne’s husband Henri (Alain Cuny) is suspicious of her constant trips to Paris and her continual remarks about Florès, so he invites Maggy and Raoul to spend the weekend in the country for a change to better observe his wife’s behavior around the handsome polo player. On her way home, Jeanne’s car breaks down, and she’s rescued by young archeology student Bernard Dubois-Lambert (Jean-Marc Bory). The weekend festivities take some unexpected turns that no one involved could have imagined.
Malle’s script was based on an 18th century story he was familiar with, but one has only to see the interactions between the weekend couples with sexual sparks flying in every direction to be reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night which both literarily and pictorially presages this prize-winning film. Malle’s primary interest in skewering the bourgeoisie throughout the movie is fully realized, and yet it’s not done with a particularly sour tone; their personalities lead them to the vacuous decisions they make in the heat of the moment.
Malle’s direction is delicate and sublimely smooth. A walk between a man and woman in the early morning hours (filmed day-for-night) is slyly sensual, and the gorgeous black and white widescreen cinematography by Henri Decae is haunting, capturing the growing ardor of the lovers as moonlight pours down upon them. A rousing polo match early on and late morning scenes where people talk over morning coffee and croissants is simple and elegantly captured.
Seeing Jeanne Moreau’s passionate, softly glamorous presence makes her ascension to the heights of international fame a no-brainer now. Her sensuality is quiet, very much the opposite of Hollywood sex symbols of the time (Monroe, Mansfield, Novak), and yet her yearning and eagerness to find fulfillment is palpable in every frame of The Lovers. It’s a star-making performance of the first order. Cuny, Bory, and Villalonga as the three men in her life play their parts with rudimentary precision, and Judith Magre’s flighty Maggy certainly makes an impression even with her limited amount of screen time.
The film’s 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio is captured in a striking anamorphic transfer. The black and white cinematography has a glow to it that’s captivating, and the grayscale as represented on this transfer usually does it justice. Blacks are deep and shadow detail is excellent apart from a few moments where objects do get lost in the gloom. There is a bit of flicker to the image occasionally, and there are some white scratches and one black scratch that intrude on one’s concentration during the film. In low light levels, some rather harsh grain also appears for a moment or two. But sharpness is distinct and most welcome. The bright white subtitles are easy to read. The film is divided into 16 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track contains a subtle level of hiss though it’s fairly unnoticeable for most of the movie. The Brahms music which makes up the score occasionally causes some distortion as volume levels are set too high in the encoding. Otherwise, there are no age related pops or crackle that are discernible.
This “budget” Criterion set contains a series of interviews with several important individuals connected with the project.
Director Louis Malle was interviewed for television in 1963 after the release of The Fire Within (also available this month on Criterion) where he talked about his early career. This excerpt lasts 9 ¾ minutes. A 1994 interview conducted about year before his death has him discussing the worldwide reaction to the film for 19 ½ minutes.
Star Jeanne Moreau is featured in two archival interviews: 2 ½ minutes in 1958 shortly after the film was presented at the Venice Film Festival and 6 ¼ minutes in 1972 at her home at the peak of her international fame.
José Luis de Villalonga is interviewed in 1958 as he prepares to film his polo scenes for the movie. His surprising interview where we learn he had previous careers as a journalist, horseman, novelist, and playwright lasts 5 ½ minutes.
Louise de Vilmorin, who worked with Malle for two months on the dialogue for the movie, speaks in a 1965 television interview for 4 minutes.
A step-through gallery of the 1959 reception the film got in the United States is contained in text pages related to the obscenity trials the film was subjected to right up to the Supreme Court followed by lobby cards and press book ads for the film’s subsequent American release capitalizing on its “racy“ aspects.
An enclosed 17-page booklet contains stills from the movie, cast and crew credit lists along with the chapter listing, and a critical review of the film by film professor Ginette Vincendeau.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, The Lovers is neither racy nor shocking today. It is a thoughtful and delicately handled psychological drama concerning a dissatisfied middle class wife looking for something more from life. Louis Malle’s subsequent career was assured by the worldwide success of this movie, and for historical interest alone, it’s well worth watching.