Louis Malle’s The Lovers, which caused a scandal in its day for the sexual frankness of its climactic love scene, is basically about two things: Jeanne Moreau’s often unfathomable instincts, and the surprisingly sensual abandon of the Brahms Sextet in B-flat Major, which floods and envelops the film’s idealistic portrayal of love at first sight. Malle and Moreau were lovers themselves when they made The Lovers, and he lets her orchestrate every scene: She narrates the film, describing her character’s feelings in the third person, and there’s an urgency in her tone even when she’s describing nothing but her own boredom.
Given Moreau’s weighted intensity, you don’t have to understand French to catch the dangerous nuances of her vocal delivery. There’s a rather half-hearted attempt at a Chabrol-style hypocrisy-of-the-bourgeoisie theme in the first hour, happily abandoned for Jeanne Tournier’s (Moreau) night of passion with archeologist Bernard Dubois-Lambert (Jean-Marc Bory). She tells him she finds moonlight “banal,” but he quickly breaks through her barriers, and when l’amour beckons, the cinematography goes into soft focus. Such visual signifiers are really unnecessary, for Moreau excels at difficult and improbable split-second transformations: “There’s no resisting happiness,” she claims, with her trademark selfish authority.
By the time Moreau reveals that she always keeps cold water in her bathtub for use on warm nights, Lovers has become fairly irresistible trash, given a patina of romantic validity by the dialogue of Louise de Vilmorin, who wrote the novel that Max Ophüls turned into The Earrings of Madame de…. This film is nowhere close to Ophuls’s landmark, but it did inaugurate Moreau’s extraordinary run of ’60s art films in high style.
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