Plot: What’s it about?
Louis Malle’s “The Lovers” is not the film I was expecting to see. Here, in the span of a mere 90 minutes, we have a director’s heart laid bare on his sleeve for the entire world to see. Of course, had critics of the film’s time actually made the effort to watch Malle’s film, it would have been painfully obvious that this picture was never meant to be remotely scandalous or even controversial. Jeanne Moreau plays Jeanne Tournier, a woman living as a shadow of herself in an unsatisfying marriage to the father of her child who is having an affair with a man named Raoul in Paris through a series of increasingly frequent trips away from her family. Also in Paris is Jeanne’s friend Maggy, who slyly encourages and instigates the socially immoral liaisons. Enter Bernard, a handsome stranger who drives Jeanne home one afternoon when her car creaks down on her trip back from Paris. Bernard is possibly the only person in Jeanne’s world who can keep up with her ever-changing persona, and yet their situation couldn’t be more compromised or impossible right from the start. Jeanne’s husband Henri has become increasingly wary of Raoul and Maggy and decides to have them both over for dinner on the same night that Bernard shows up with Jeanne.
If it seems this is all an elaborate setup for something seedy and shocking, some might come away disappointed by the anti-climax of this film. Indeed, “The Lovers” is tame by today’s standards, but in truth, it was the last act of this picture that really won me over. It’s a bold and unexpected choice for Malle to have taken the film in the direction that he does here, and it’s nothing at all like what I was expecting to see. Instead of blatant depravity or even preachy subtexts on the immorality of what is happening, what we’re given here is a window to the mind of a director who sees love as the ultimate aspiration, superseding even the bonds of marriage or maternal responsibility. It’s unquestionably, undeniably irresponsible to present things as Malle does (with such a thick veil of romanticism and unabashed sentimentality), but it’s also inspiring (and inspired) filmmaking at its best. I couldn’t believe that the choice that is made at the end of the film was taken so heavily by the characters, and yet with such steely-jawed resolve. And yet it all plays out so lightly onscreen that it seems almost an afterthought, as if the outcome was never in doubt at all.
Another interesting inclusion here is the film’s coda, in which both of “the lovers” begin having their doubts about everything, even as the first dawn comes into their dream, polluting it with the ever-present oppression of reality. The underlying theme here, to me, is whether love real love is worth pursuing regardless of the consequences, both individual and external or if one’s obligatory existence and pre-existing choices override being true to oneself, even in the face of what might be the only legitimate validity in life. “The Lovers” makes a passionate and deafening cry to the truth of the former philosophy, and I can’t say that some part of me doesn’t find some small measure of comfort in that conceit. It may be not be a reality that many of us ever truly find or at least not to the degree that the two leads find it in this film but it’s certainly a debatable truth. Love may not last, and it may not ever have the chance to be what it seems to be initially for many of us, but Malle’s film carries with it the achingly poignant heartbreak of the desire to believe in that possibility, even as seemingly insurmountable doses of the real world threaten to tear it all down. It works out for Jeanne and Bernard in this film, uncertain though the future is for both of them. And yet, as the film’s narrator says so pointedly, “she regretted nothing”. We should all be so lucky.
Video: How does it look?
“The Lovers” comes to Criterion DVD in a tenderly restored 2.35:1 transfer that breathes new life into the film. For a movie of this vintage, detail is exceptionally strong with fine detail rarely failing to impress. Black levels, while not entirely consistent, are generally deep and pleasing. Some scenes exhibit excessive graininess, but on the whole, the film looks relatively clean and blemish-free. I was pleasantly surprised at this presentation and, again, for a film of this age, the transfer presented here holds up rather remarkably. Compression is handled well, and I saw nothing to distract from the film on a technical level. I would venture to guess that the aforementioned grain and varying quality of blacks in certain (and fairly isolated) instances are a natural drawback of the source used and not a problem with this disc. This is a very good effort from Criterion that should please fans of this film no end. The video score at the end of this review reflects the age of the film. English subtitles are available.
Audio: How does it sound?
While only presented here in its original mono soundtrack, “The Lovers” boasts a surprisingly revealing soundstage given the limitations of the source. The climactic swells of the score can, at times, sound a bit harsh due to the heavy reliance on strings, but in general, I found this mix to be pleasing and very strong for a mono track. Dialogue is clear and clean for the most part, though I did notice an instance or two of sound drop-off during a few lines throughout the film. This only happened two or three times throughout the entire running time and should in no way dissuade fans of the film from a purchase. Again, it’s likely that this problem is due to the original source track and not the mastering process on the disc itself. In general, fans should be pleased with the audio presentation here. It may not be revelatory, but it’s faithful to how the film was presented in theaters and, certainly, if there’s any group that Criterion appeals to, it’s film purists.
Supplements: What are the extras?
The extras on this DVD are, unfortunately, a bit lacking. The only real bonus features included here are a few relatively short interview segments with Louis Malle, Jeanne Moreau, Jose Luis de Villalonga, and writer Louis de Vilmorin. The best segments are, predictably, the Malle and Moreau interviews. Each talk candidly about the film’s initial reception and their reactions to the criticisms and accusations of indecency. The insert included with “The Lovers” does offer a nice essay by film historian Ginette Vincendeau that puts the film into the proper historical and cultural perspective. A promotional still gallery is also included. The extras that are here are nice to have, but a commentary to accompany the informative but all-too-brief essay on the insert would have been nicer, as would a making-of documentary or at least a featurette or two. In any case, what’s here is decent enough, and I can still give the disc a heartfelt recommendation to fans of Malle’s controversial film.