Jean-Jacques Annaud (Two Brothers, Enemy at the Gate) made L’Amant (The Lover) in 1992. He wrote the script, but the story is from an autobiographical novel by Marguerite Duras. Anyone who has heard the narrator from Hiroshima Mon Amour, the film Duras scripted for Alain Resnais, will know what to expect from the book, and from the film as well, for Annaud is faithful to it. Duras writes some of the most beautiful, most precise prose of any modern writer, and preserves a tone of ironic detachment that draws the reader deep into the emotional process she is describing.
Annaud takes a risk in following the book so closely, for his film becomes literary rather than cinematic, and viewers sometimes find it empty, lacking in the kind of melodramatic intensity we’ve become used to in movies. In a reference to Hiroshima Mon Amour perhaps, Annaud has two parallel narrative streams throughout the movie, and this device succeeds in making it a great movie.
Viewers, especially in puritan America, are taken aback at the intensely erotic lovemaking scenes, which comprise most of the visual content of the movie. The lovmaking is so real that one wonders if the actors were really doing it, and not acting at all (I think they were). Other components may be dwarfed by this content, but they are there: the magnificent photography of landscape and city which expresses the love the characters have for their home; the racial divide between Asian and European; and the overriding theme of growing up.
The second narrative stream is the reflections of the elderly Duras (spoken by Jeanne Moreau in a non acting but important role) as she comments on the actions of her younger self as they are depicted in the film. This is the essence of both book and film. The tender, nostalgic tone of the elder Duras discovers both innocence and ignorance in the younger one; this is an experience everyone (except the very young) can relate to. The grandiose, empty generalisations (all women are prostitutes, the young girl tells her friend: I wouldn’t mind being one). The eagerness for sexual experience, for losing one’s virginity and becoming ‘adult’. Focusing on one’s own overwhelming reactions and cultivating a kind of blindness to the reactions of others. It is by looking back that Duras discovers the depth of the passion she has inspired in her lover. It is by looking back that she also discovers her feelings, on the surface so self confidently detached, were deeper than she realised. The lover loved her all his life. L’Amant is a love letter both to him, the lover, and her younger self, an attempt to bring the love more perfectly to life in fiction than it was in real life, an appeal to all of us to understand more fully what we are feeling, even though Duras realises the ironic truth that to learn from our mistakes we first have to make them.
I recently read a review of this film in which the reviewer said the film was weakened by the fact that Jane March couldn’t act. The comment made me reflect on how often actresses who do nude scenes are said to be bad actresses. It’s always sounded like puritanism to me: instead of saying it’s bad to be naked you say the acting’s bad. I thought the acting was good throughout this film. You cannot fault Tony Leung, one of the greats of the HK movie industry. Jane March was asked to play a young, inexperienced girl and her own acting inexperience helped her do a good job. She played a stranger in a strange land who was also a stranger in her own family slowing coming to self realisation through her own sensuality. March was believable through all this, and not only because she looked the part. But to get the most from the movie you can’t just focus on Jane March, just as you can’t just focus on Jeanne Moreau as she speaks Duras’ words. You have to focus on both actresses at the same time. And if you do and you’re a male you’ll learn a lot about women.
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