Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Lovers (1958)

I rented “The Lovers” because it was so controversial in its day. Supposedly the sex scenes were considered obscene; so much so that a Cleveland theater owner got arrested for showing it. Obviously, we waited until our daughter was in bed to watch it. Didn’t want to destroy her innocence and whatnot. Trust me when I tell you that we needn’t have worried. By today’s standards, this film could be shown during prime-time. You could watch it with your parents and your pastor and feel only mildly uncomfortable. I can well imagine that there was a time when this film would have been a little racy, but it beggars the imagination that someone could have been arrested over it.

“The Lovers” is your typical, slow-moving French film focused on emotions rather than action. Directed by Louis Malle, the film stars the beautiful Jeanne Moreau as Jeanne, the bored wife of a wealthy newspaperman. Her husband is at once distant and jealous. She seeks happiness with fashionable Parisian friends and a lover who is dashing and popular, but a bit tiresome, with all his seriousness and protestations of love. Jeanne lives a life of quiet desperation.

One fateful day Jeanne’s car breaks down, and she catches a ride with a young archeologist. He is independent, self-possessed, and witty, and he does something for Jeanne that her husband and her lover never do: he makes her laugh. That laughter opens up something inside her, and she and the archeologist fall in love over the course of a passionate, beautifully filmed night.

Knowing the reputation of this film, I expected that that night would involve some graphic sex, but I should have known that I was failing to give the French the credit they are due. A French film would never emphasize the mechanics of sex over the passion. Most of the night, Jeanne and her lover walk or run about outside in their nightclothes in the cool night air, rediscovering what it feels like to be young and free. Naturally, they wind up in bed together, and the scene is pretty sexy, but nothing is shown that would get the movie more than a PG rating today.

I think that what upset the censors as much as the sex is the sense of amorality in this film. Once Jeanne gets a taste of true passion, she has no compunctions about leaving her husband and child, and the film does not pass judgment on this. Decency codes of the time reportedly required that sin be punished in a movie. This story of a woman selfishly pursuing her own happiness must have furrowed many a brow. The tale reminds me somewhat of another controversial story, Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel “The Awakening,” although it’s interesting that even in Chopin’s novel, her heroine is not allowed to live happily ever after, while “The Lovers” leaves us on a hopeful note. Even today, it’s rather rare to find a story of someone finding happiness outside of socially prescribed behaviors. Think of the flawed film “American Beauty,” whose protagonist ditches his stifling job and marriage in inspiring style, but is ultimately punished for it. Most movies today are just as much promoters of societal stability as the films of the 1950’s. They mostly feature people finding someone to marry and settle down with.

It turns out if you want to see something titillating, you’ll have to rent “9 ½ Weeks.” Despite its reputation, “The Lovers” is pretty mild. It is, however, a thoughtful, sexy, beautiful movie, and Jeanne Moreau is easy to look at for 90 minutes. As for that Cleveland theater owner, his conviction was eventually thrown out by the Supreme Court. Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote about the difficulty in defining pornography, “I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

3.5 stars out of 5

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