1992, R, 115 min. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Narrated by Jeanne Moreau. Starring Jane March, Tony Leung.
REVIEWED By Pamela Bruce, Fri., Jan. 8, 1993
Annaud (The Bear) and screenwriter Gerard Brach (The Tenant, Tess) successfully craft Marguerite Duras' coming-of-age memoir L'Amant into a hypnotic, sensuous film teeming with undercurrents of sociopolitical implications in its tale of forbidden love (that is somewhat reminiscent of Duras' screenplay Hiroshima, Mon Amour). Through narration by Moreau that evokes the “tobacco and love” wisdom of an aging Duras as she pens her recollections, the viewer is drawn to 1929 Saigon during the era of French colonialism in Vietnam, where “The Young Girl” (March) -- as a curious, precocious schoolgirl perpetually decked in an oversized silk dress, time-worn evening mules, and a man's fedora -- lives a life of poverty in a fatherless, loveless household. One steamy afternoon on a boat crossing the Mekong River, the wealthy handsome “Chinese Man” (Leung) nearly twice her age, spies the lanky Young Girl posturing near the railing from his ferried limousine, and nervously approaches her. (“The Young Girl” and “The Chinese Man” are the names given these characters in Duras' autobiographical fiction.) Erotic, unspoken tension builds between the two as she accepts his offer of a chauffeur-driven ride to Saigon (as opposed to the usual, bumpy-back-of-the-crowded-bus ride with peasants and their chickens), and intensifies as he obsessively waits to catch a glimpse of her as she leaves school every day. Soon, they become impassioned lovers trysting in a dark hideaway on a crowded, anonymous backstreet in Saigon. Yet, cultural prejudice and the restraints of tradition are what create the cold, emotionless chasm that dooms their union spiritually. The inexperienced Young Girl is selfishly looking for a measure of self-worth through a hardened, yet romantic veil offering the exotic taboo of being financially kept by an older man -- not just any older, rich man, but a dark sophisticated “Chinaman.” Facing a grim future of a loveless, traditionally-arranged marriage to a stranger, her Chinese lover wants to capture a fleeting moment of elusive “once in a lifetime love” that compels him to the Young Girl, even though he knows that despite his wealth and Western impeccability, she is incapable of perceiving him as anything more than an “inferior” to be “toyed with” -- typical of the perspective of Eurocentric colonialists before and during this period (which Annaud also examines in his 1977 film, Black and White in Color). Rounding out the richness of this film are the fresh, subtle performances of both March and Leung, as well as the haunting images of a forgotten time and place brought together by stunning photography (Robert Fraisse), and detailed, seamless production design (Thanh At Hoang) produced on location in the present-day Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The Lover is one of those great films that shouldn't be missed.