“The Lover” is easy to watch and even easier to forget. A pleasant enough piece of commercial sensuality from French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, its selling point is its very pretty, clothing-optional sex scenes. Their effectiveness, however, is undercut by an air of self-congratulatory pomposity that the film is way too insubstantial to support.
In this art-house erotica mixing of simulated love making with strained seriousness, “The Lover” (at the Park) follows a path of proven success. While heavy breathing and beautiful sweaty bodies are its real lure, the film’s pseudoliterary tone gives audiences an ironclad pretext to go, excusing curiosity with a convenient overlay of cultural respectability.
The story of a love that dared not speak its name in 1920s Saigon between a beautiful young French schoolgirl and a worldly Chinese man of 32 who isn’t bad looking himself, “The Lover” comes by both its sensuality and its pomposity honestly.
Based on a novelized memoir of her own sexual initiation (at age 15) by Marguerite Duras, a dauntingly serious French writer and filmmaker whom Annaud has solemnly called “a national treasure, like the Musee du Louvre,” “The Lover’s” sleek doings have been a huge success in France. The only person apparently not impressed was Ms. Duras herself, who sniffed that “My Chinese lover, the real one, was far better looking” and proceeded to write yet another book going over the same territory as the film.
Rated R (for graphic and explicit sexuality) on appeal after initially getting labeled NC-17 for a version that is three minutes shorter than the overseas one, “The Lover” shares several qualities with traditional soft-core films of the “Emmanuelle” variety.
For one thing, almost no one feels the need to bother with things as commonplace and reality-based as names; the credits talk of “The Young Girl,” “The Chinese Man” and so on. For another, fairly or not, everyone who signs on for this experience will enter the theater with but a single thought in mind: When does the fun begin?
First, though, we meet the Girl (British model Jane March) on a visit to her impoverished, heroically dysfunctional family in rural Vietnam. It is, we are told in Jeanne Moreau’s orotund voice-over, “a suffocating place of violence and despair,” and nothing we see of a miserable mother and two hostile brothers causes us to entertain a contrary opinion.
On the way back to Saigon, standing moodily on a rickety ferry while wearing a shapeless sack dress set off by her trademark, taboo-breaking men’s hat, she catches the eye of the Man (Hong Kong actor Tony Leung). He invites her to ride back in his spiffy black limo (a vintage Morris Leon-Bolee, secured, like everything else in the film, at no little trouble and expense).
He’s just back from Paris, enormously wealthy, and bored, bored, bored. She is a student at a high school that apparently doesn’t assign much homework because her afternoons are always free. Clearly, they are Made for Each Other.
Soon enough the Man takes her back to his tiny, romantic, light-streaming-through-the-shutters pied-a-terre in the heart of Saigon’s Chinese marketplace, and it’s here that “The Lover” finally gets down to business. And Annaud, a director who first worked in commercials, is quite good at choreographing and filming glossy, decorous sex scenes that manage to be sensual without bursting the bonds of propriety. There is no lack of nudity, or of passionate moaning, and if the beautifully lit result is rather on the detached side, it is, if nothing else, an improvement over the ham-fisted doings in Hollywood’s last sex opera, “Basic Instinct.”
And “The Lover” has other virtues going for it. One of the first international films to be actually shot in Vietnam, it offers a lush, drenched-in-atmosphere re-creation of 1920s Indochina, complete with pigs, mud, chaos and Colonial architecture. With its wide-screen vistas (Robert Fraisse is the director of photography), “The Lover” is strongest in terms of assured, old-fashioned pictorial virtues, the kind of production values MGM (which is distributing the film domestically) specialized in in the good old days.
A problem that won’t go away, however, is the profound seriousness with which “The Lover” takes itself and its protagonists’ cross-cultural predicament. As if it wasn’t enough to begin the film with a reverential shot of the Writer at Her desk, determinedly penning the memoir, the Gerard Brach-Annaud script, especially in its voice-over, is full of stagy situations and ponderous sentiments such as “very early in my life it was too late” that make you want to smile at rather inopportune times.
Though “The Lover” was filmed in English, the dialogue is stilted enough to make it feel dubbed, and the opaque quality of the Girl’s character, her emotionless self-absorption, doesn’t make for much involvement either. As for director Annaud, his most successful films, “Quest for Fire” and “The Bear,” were larger than life affairs and did not depend for their success on the ability to create realistic emotions. Without that kind of personal connection, nothing carnal, no matter how decorative its surface, is going to seem very alive or create more than a limited, teasing impression.
Jane March: The Young Girl
Tony Leung: The Chinese Man
Frederique Meininger: The Mother
Arnaud Giovaninetti: The Elder Brother
Melvil Poupaud: The Younger Brother
A Renn production, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud. Producer Claude Berri. Screenplay Gerard Brach and Jean-Jacques Annaud, from the novel by Marguerite Duras. Cinematographer Robert Fraisse. Editor Noelle Boisson. Costumes Yvonne Sassionot de Nesle. Music Gabriel Yared. Production design Thanh At Hoang. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (graphic and explicit sexuality).