the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Lover (1992)

The Lover is not Mon Amour

    Merchant-Ivory has been very successful in the last few years by taking recognized works of literature and translating them to the screen (i.e. Room with a View, Maurice, Howard's End…). This is thinking-man's fun; the film equivalent of Masterpiece Theater with enough English accents to play on the American sense of cultural insecurity. A new wave has arrived, or more precisely a nouvelle vague: Magritte Duras' The Lover is now a movie. Merchant-Ivory beware, the idea is catching on.

    The Lover is the story of a love affair between an impoverished adolescent French girl and wealthy Chinese man in his thirties. It is framed by having an older woman, a writer living in Paris, reminiscence about this experience which occurred in Indo-China where she spent her childhood. There is a hint that this is an autobiographical portrayal of Ms. Duras. Although this film can be erotic and enthralling, the role of the Duras figure undercuts its strength. The opening shows obscure erotic shapes (bodies perhaps) in close up. A distinctive voice of an older woman, speaking English with a French accent, begins the narrative. As she talks, the shapes evolve into a close-up of a hand writing out the story in French. This sequence ends and the beautiful young French teenager quickly encounters the dashing rich Chinese man. These two figures stand out in the harsh reality of pre-World War II Vietnam. The romance takes its course in the midst of a very impressive re-creation of the period. I felt as if I was there. If only that old lady had shut up. Instead the narrator talks and talks and talks. It is as if she was hired for the visually impaired. In the context of the abstractness of the opening sequence, the narration worked. Throughout the film it became antithetical to the passionate portrayal of the couple. Radio show hosts and sports broadcasters never do much to build a sense of romantic intimacy. Despite the refined timbre of her voice, she was an endless annoying intrusion.

    The most glaring verbal assaults were exhibited at the close of the action and during the epilogue. The climax of the film features the young woman leaving on a ship. She looks out to see if her lover has remembered her. The film is shot in a straightforward way which clearly shows the action. It is personal moment at the end of a very passionate story. My enjoyment of the outcome was clouded by that groggy old voice from the future carefully explaining exactly was occurring. This sequence jumps to a moment when the ship is out at sea. The girl wanders around then bursts into tears. It is not necessary to wonder what she is thinking. In fact there is no need to watch the scene. The fateful narrator tells all. It was truly a bizarre cinematic experience. It was the equivalent of watching a foreign film and having a stranger in a distant seat giving expository comments in-between reading the sub-titles aloud. This carried over into the epilogue. This sequence ties into the opening close-up of the hand and the pen. Unlike the beginning there is no montage of abstract close-ups. The director has  completely capitulated to the narrator. Visual blandness lives as the voice drones on. There is a wide shot of an older woman, with her back to the audience, writing at a desk. The narrator goes on to explain that many years later the lover contacted her. The voice spells out his feelings, her reaction, the outcome…  all the while her back faces us, an unintended metaphor for the visual surrender which has occurred. The voice has run out of things to explain. The film ends. Movies are primarily a visual medium. It seems such an obvious statement but The Lover's closing begs a reminder of this simple truth.

    The director, despite the ending, exhibits some control of the craft. The film is successful when the telling stops and the showing starts. There are two sequences which particularly stand out. The sexual interplay between the protagonists is truly erotic. They are usually making love but in one gruesome scene he "fucks" her. Throughout it all, however, there is not one moment of pornography. The director completely avoided being gratuitous or sensationalistic. In an age where Madonna's Sex is a bestseller, this is no small feat. The "meet the family" encounter was another moment when the director and the actors were in top form. This evening is perfectly drawn. Compassion, rudeness and ruthlessness gyrates back and forth between friends, enemies, family and lovers. Anyone who has ever encountered the rough waters of mixing relations and sweethearts will take solace; nothing could be as nightmarish as Ms. Duras' experience. Even the narrator's interruptions failed to dull this brilliant portrait. It is so vivid it calls into question the need for the earlier domestic scenes. The initial flashback of the horrors of the young girl's home becomes superfluous. Everyone comes to life clearly and succinctly when she clandestinely introduces her family to her lover. This is good filmmaking.

    Overall The Lover is an adequate rendition of a tragic love story with professional acting, magnificent design work and passable directing. Perhaps that would suffice if it were not for Ms. Duras' Hiroshima Mon Amour. This film, which was directed by Alain Renais in the early '60s, is built around a Frenchwoman's tryst with an Asian man. It might be easy to become absorbed in the fact that the protagonists in both films are almost racially identical. More importantly, however, both these couples face the same predicament: trying to establish true love in a horrific, unforgiving world. Hiroshima Mon Amour is a haunting film. Ms. Duras' bleak outlook on the prospects of finding a spiritual-emotional partner are fully realized. Despite having only viewed it once 11 years ago, I can vividly recall the strange interaction between that blessed but unfortunate couple. It might seem unfair to expect The Lover to live up to this recognized cinematic masterpiece. Unfortunately the thematic resemblance forces the issue. The director also opens The Lover with a subtle reference to the Renais film. The abstract montage of the hand writing on the page evokes Renais' abstract human forms in the midst of passion/torture. In both cases Duras' words provide the voice over. From this point on, however, the films go their separate ways. Mr. Renais creates a love fraught with passion and ambivalence. The Lover relates an engaging, erotic and unhappy reminiscence.

    Perhaps the ultimate irony is that The Lover was made three decades after Hiroshima Mon Amour's premiere. If this is truly an autobiographic episode from Ms. Duras' childhood, it gives an interesting perspective on the seed from which Renais' masterpiece evolved. Regrettably most audiences will not have the experience of seeing the earlier film in movie houses, if at all. Perhaps a future film professor might show the two works as a double bill: High Brow Entertainment and Great Cinema. No need to say which film will be shown first.    

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