After playing to packed houses in Europe and Asia for seven months, much of the news surrounding Jean-Jacques Annaud's "The Lover" on this continent prior to its limited national release today has focused on how realistic its sex scenes appear.
Annaud, however, would rather talk about making the movie in Vietnam, the first Western production ever shot there.
"The Lover," he said, mimicking a Hollywood pitch line, is the story of "a girl, the man--and Asia."
The movie is an adaptation of Marguerite Duras' celebrated, best-selling novel about a forbidden interracial romance between a young French girl (Jane March, a Briton) and an older, wealthy Chinese suitor (Tony Leung) in the segregated French Colonial Saigon of 1929--based upon Duras' own experience growing up outside Saigon.
Once Annaud became enamored of the source material, he jumped on the first plane to see its setting--as he did for previous film projects, including the Academy Award-winning "Black and White in Color" (Cameroon), "Quest for Fire" (Kenya, Canada and London) and 'The Bear" (Austria and Northern Italy). MGM acquired "The Lover," a French/German/Italian/Japanese-financed co-production, for distribution in the U.S. and Canada after it was finished.
What he didn't figure was how sorry a state Vietnam was in upon first scouting locations in 1989.
Gesturing with his hands spread about 16 inches apart, he recalls the "best colonial hotel" offered "rats as big as this running through the corridors, spiders everywhere, and no air conditioning, of course. When we tried to use the sink, three drops of brown water--I presume from the Red River--came out of the faucet."
And it took all day to place a phone call from Da Nang to Saigon.
And you wanted to film here?
"Of course not," said the 40-year-old director, who, when he's not on location, lives on his farm 60 miles outside Paris.
But a year later, he had changed his mind. Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, countries that have stood in for Vietnam in movies starring everyone from Chuck Norris to Robin Williams, just would not do.
"I sent an assistant to all these places and he came back with a few diseases and (stories of) a happy time on nice resorts. Nothing like the kind of truth I could perceive in those rice fields of Vietnam, those decrepit colonial buildings painted many times over in the gray colors of Marxism," he said.
What Annaud found ironic was how successive eras of the French colonists, the Vietnam War and communism resulted in a country that may not be even up to Third World standards, yet because of its poverty, "is so much closer to eternal Asia" than its neighbors.
This "tired museum" was the perfect, lush backdrop to stage the lovers' chance meeting aboard a ferry crossing the Mekong River and subsequent clandestine rendezvous, he said. It also helped that Annaud was a French filmmaker, less a target for any holdover resentment than an American might be. After two decades of socialist isolationism, the current regime is welcoming foreigners--it even provided the production crew with one of the government's three MIG helicopters for occasional use.
Still, the prudish Marxist leadership insisted upon seeing the production storyboards in advance of filming--the sex scenes would be shot later on sound stages in Paris--and that one "Vietnamese KGB agent" be on set at all times.
Nothing was easy. For starters, everything having to do with moviemaking had to be imported and, as such, "The Lover" was hardly a bargain to make. Principal photography took five months and when the bills finally totaled up, the budget reached $30 million.
Of the unhidden costs, a 1920 ocean liner was brought from Cyprus to Saigon Harbor for use in two pivotal scenes. A French caterer was hired to appease the culinary tastes of the 60-person French crew and 20,000 gallons of mineral water was shipped in to thwart sickness. No luck. The rich food and hot, sticky climate caused half the crew to be out on a given day.
Another concern: local temperaments.
"(The Vietnamese) wanted to be consulted, they wanted to be treated with respect," he said.
He hired local crews willingly as painters and carpenters. On other occasions, the choice was not his. One unpleasant incident was when a local official implored him to use human labor instead of a mechanical pump to water-down a country road for a scene. The official was back the next day screaming that the production paid the girls $5 apiece--saying that was too much! Annaud was admonished the children's parents would be humiliated as the average annual wage for peasants is $7 a year.
As the director and his crew learned, "you have to rethink your entire attitude."
"I fell in love with those people who gave me nothing when I first was there. They began to trust me more and more. They have pride."
And when "The Lover" was finished, it was Saigon where Annaud chose to premiere his film. His morally minded Vietnamese guests viewed an uncut version, excusing its sensuality and praising the dignified portrayal of the Asian male lead.
Opposition only came later, when the Motion Picture Assn. of America slapped "The Lover" with an NC-17 rating. On appeal, they viewed a cut version--three minutes of mostly long scenic pans were removed--and listened to an MGM representative and New York sex educator argue that the sexually explicit lesbian thriller "Basic Instinct" received an R. More convincing was their and Annaud's beliefs that "The Lover," while equally explicit, showed lovemaking with the emphasis on love.
Annaud's pleas were personal: "I have two teen-age daughters of the age of the girl on screen and I wanted them to know that they have been conceived in an intense moment of pleasure."
They downgraded the picture to an R.
The traumas behind him, Annaud appears pleased.
"People are fed up with images they see on the television. I ask myself, 'How are you going to offer something fresh, something new?' " he said. "I had to make it special for me, for the way I perceived it."