Jean-Jacques Annaud's film version of Marguerite Duras's evocative, beautifully imagined novel is a soft-core porno hash with pretensions to high art. Annaud focuses on The Lover's most accessible aspects--"hot" sex scenes, the scenic pictorialism of 1930s Saigon, an overall ambiance of
flushed exotica--and wholly misses the poetry, fatalism and brilliant economy which made Duras's prose as haunting as a recurring dream.
While on a ferry crossing the Mekong River, a fifteen-year-old French girl (Jane March) encounters a wealthy young Chinese man (Tony Leung) who will forever affect her life. They begin a torrid affair which provides her impoverished family with material gain, while simultaneously bringing on the
disapprobation of a bigoted society. Her mother (Frederique Meininger) and brothers (Arnaud Giovaninetti and Melvil Poupaud) gladly accept the cash and fancy meals the Asian bestows, while treating him with the barely concealed contempt that is the unquestioned prerogative of their race and class.
The girl, who is nothing if not enigmatic, finds herself rather the master in the relationship, for it is really the man who falls hard for her and suffers from outside pressures. The relationship ends when his family forces him to break with her and marry his designated-from-birth, aristocratic
Chinese bride. However, the memory of him will obsess her through adulthood and greatly affect her as the writer she is to become.
Annaud (QUEST FOR FIRE, THE NAME OF THE ROSE) would have done well to study Frank Capra's most atypical, erotically astonishing film, THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN, which handled a similar story with real sensuality, romance and dramatic vigor. Although unseen, Jeanne Moreau is the most
felicitously employed person in THE LOVER. Her magisterially jaded voice narrates the action and gives it some fitful flavor and a sense of something higher--like art--sorely lacking in the writing and direction.
Working on an obviously sizeable budget, Annaud offers some handsome visuals. The fabled first river crossing is given its full due, with the image of the girl, eccentrically clad in a man's fedora and gold high heels, leaning against a railing as the Asian's immense, gleaming limousine encroaches
on her. In the film's single light-hearted moment, cleaning day at the girl's house is shown, with pails of water being sluiced across the floors, while her mother joyously pounds a piano and the kids go crazy. There's a tantalizing sequence, set in the girl's convent, in which she and a chum
practice the tango in a hall shot through with late afternoon sun. And, of course, there are those sex scenes, which take place in a ramshackle room where only the thinnest, shuttered wall separates the writhing lovers from the teeming noise and smell of the streetmarket.
March, who was cast following an extensive search, is subjected to intensive sexual scrutiny by the camera, her every body part and orgasmic expression proffered to view. Leung, meanwhile, in keeping with the usual double standards, shows no frontal nudity. Dialogue is scarce in the film, so his
character comes across as a callow, beautifully tailored stiff. (He barely registers any pain at his rejection by the girl's boorish family.) March has the requisite child-woman quality and evinces some sly humor but she, too, is stymied by the schematic screenplay. She is far more convincing as
an emblem of nostalgic, adolescent eroticism than as one of France's most distinguished future writers. Small wonder, then, that Duras herself has publicly disowned this adaptation. (Violence, nudity, sexual situations, adult situations.)
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