When it came out in November 1958, The Lovers scandalized conservative France, just as it had outraged Catholic Italy at the Venice Film Festival two months earlier. At the same time, the film solidified the reputations of director Louis Malle and star Jeanne Moreau, both having already triumphed earlier that year with Elevator to the Gallows. They would go on, separately, to glittering careers, but The Lovers would remain a landmark of the early French New Wave, even if Malle’s relationship to that movement would be tangential. Fifty years on, it may be hard to understand the shock waves The Lovers created with its “frank” depiction of a woman’s sexual pleasure, but in the context of late-1950s France, it was a bombshell, all the more so as Malle embedded his portrait of a woman’s “liberation” within a trenchant satire of the high bourgeoisie. Today the film also speaks vividly of both the modernization of France and the revolution in French cinema that Malle and Moreau were spearheading.
Jeanne Tournier (Moreau) is the bored wife of haughty provincial press magnate Henri (Alain Cuny). She begins an affair with Raoul (José Luis de Villalonga), a snobbish polo player whom she sees on increasingly frequent visits to Paris, ostensibly to stay with her socialite friend Maggy (Judith Magre)—who actually encouraged the affair—neglecting her husband and young daughter. One weekend Henri, who probably suspects her liaison, summons Jeanne back home, where (much to her annoyance) he has invited both Raoul and Maggy. On the road from Paris, her car breaks down; she is rescued and driven home by Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory), a young, relaxed archaeologist, whom Henri also invites to stay. Bernard initially shows indifference and even hostility toward Jeanne and her world, but keenly observes the uneasy atmosphere in the house as tensions between wife, husband, lover, and friend become palpable. A night of passionate love between him and Jeanne, however, changes everything. In the morning they leave together, while the others, stunned, look on.
The Lovers reveals its focus on femininity and sensuality from the start, as the credits unfold over a section of the Carte du tendre—a “map” of amorous relations drawn by Madeleine de Scudéry in the seventeenth century, with its “Lake of Indifference,” “Dangerous Sea,” and so on. The camera fixes on a configuration that evokes the female anatomy, while romantic music by Brahms wells up on the soundtrack. The Lovers is distantly based on an eighteenth-century libertine novella by Dominique-Vivant Denon, adapted by Louise de Vilmorin, a postwar novelist famous for her womencentric texts (she provided the source material for Max Ophüls’s 1953 The Earrings of Madame de . . . , among other films). To this lighthearted, cynical French tradition of libertinage, Malle brought his own preoccupations. He totally rewrote Vilmorin’s script (to her annoyance), in part to modernize it and in part to suit the persona of Moreau, with whom he was having an offscreen affair (he renamed the heroine Jeanne), while Brahms brings a dimension of emotional intensity and truth—this combination anticipating the climactic love scene but also, indeed, the trajectory of the heroine.
Malle presents Jeanne in highly contradictory ways. On the one hand, he sees her as a modern Bovary languishing in the provinces and seemingly affected by her husband’s neglect and implied unfaithfulness. On the other hand, he shows her as a hard-nosed woman bent on getting her way: every inch the grande bourgeoise, she bosses her servants about and ignores her husband’s pleas for her not to go to Paris—all this in impeccable couture outfits and with not a hair out of place. But the greatest dichotomy in Jeanne’s character is between arrogant socialite and sincere lover, the move from one to the other describing her narrative evolution. After a supper during which Jeanne, Henri, Raoul, and Maggy exchange barbed remarks under Bernard’s sarcastic gaze, she undoes her coiffure and chic evening dress and, lured by the sound of Brahms, goes downstairs in free-floating hair and white night-gown (though she keeps her pearls on). There she finds Bernard, and in a long, dreamlike sequence that constitutes the heart of the film, they walk through the moonlit park. They’re overwhelmed by the beauty of the night, the sensuality of nature (rustling wind, caressing branches, rushing water); their hands touch, their gazes meet: they fall passionately in love. There follows a lyrical scene drifting in a boat, and their love is finally consummated in the house.
What shocked critics so much at the time was not Jeanne’s adultery (a staple of French film and theater) but the fact that the film refused to demonize her for it. Instead the camera focuses on her face as she experiences pleasure in a discreet, yet unmistakable, way—as reviewers remarked on at the time, whether they praised the scene (and the film) as a “love poem” or condemned it as “filthy” (there were calls for the film to be banned). In another attack on conventional morality, The Lovers presents her socially acceptable adultery with Raoul as a sham and her iconoclastic relationship with Bernard as authentic (for Bernard, nature, Brahms, and solitude à deux; for Raoul, the polo ground, crowded dance halls, and funfairs). Equally bold is the juxtaposition of her tender kiss to her sleeping child with her kissing Bernard; even though Malle teasingly points to the painting of a cleric on the wall between the child’s bedroom and the room where she makes love to Bernard, nothing is made of her as a “bad mother.” Finally, in a departure from the novella and the script, the film shows the couple, unpunished, leaving together at the end—even though their anxiety about the future is clear.
Only one actress could embody such a complex heroine with credibility: Jeanne Moreau. A rising star in the mainstream cinema of the early 1950s, in which she played bitchy young minxes, Moreau underwent a fundamental transformation under the aegis of Malle in Elevator to the Gallows, where he made her wander the streets of Paris, dimly lit and without makeup. As he later put it, “Cameramen would have forced her to wear a lot of makeup, and they would put a lot of light on her because, supposedly, her face was not photogenic [. . .] They were horrified. But when Elevator was released, suddenly something of Jeanne Moreau’s essential qualities came out.” This rebirth is indeed self-consciously reiterated in Jeanne’s transformation in The Lovers, from artificial, frivolous creature to “existentially” sensual woman. Bernard tells her, “I love you because you are different.” From her huge close-up at the opening of Elevator to the Gallows, Moreau was at the center of a shift in the representation of female eroticism, from the body to the face (even the sex scene in The Lovers avoids showing her body). Her face connoted interiority, her full, slightly down-turned lips gave her a proud, independent allure. Moreau brought to the cinema a new type of glamour, less overtly sexy than Bardot, more cerebral—she was known offscreen as a cultured woman, in tune with the new art cinema. With Moreau, the “new woman” of the New Wave had arrived. The fact that her character Jeanne’s new identity is defined by the choice of another man, albeit a kinder and more bohemian one than her husband or former lover, would prove premonitory. As film historian Geneviève Sellier puts it in her book La nouvelle vague: “This deliberate confusion between liberation and amorous revelation is recurrent in the construction of female characters in the New Wave, which entails erasing the idea of social emancipation.” New Wave filmmaking was aesthetically innovative, but its depiction of women, while acknowledging huge changes in their lives, still defined them according to male myths of femininity in a predominantly masculine cinema. The Lovers is testimony to these tensions, and it remains, in other ways too, a captivating document of its time.
From his debut as Jacques Cousteau’s codirector (at the age of twenty-four) on the underwater feature The Silent World (1956), Malle was interested in documentary, and as Hugo Frey puts it in his essay “Louis Malle and the 1950s,” “There is a recurrent element of journalistic reportage in much of Malle’s cinema.” The Lovers meticulously re-creates, and satirizes, a world that was extremely familiar to Malle. He was the heir to a northern sugar empire; Henri owns a Burgundian newspaper. The beautiful house (which belonged to one of Malle’s aunts), the clothes, the language, the social relations, are all of a piece, in a world that in many ways still lives as before the war—neatly alluded to by the casting of Gaston Modot, the gamekeeper in Jean Renoir’s 1939 The Rules of the Game, as Coudray, the butler. Malle demonstrates his documentary talent in the sequence where Jeanne visits Henri at work: ostensibly she’s there to check what she already suspects (that he is unfaithful), but really it’s an occasion for Malle to display the old-fashioned presses and the men and women at work, in a series of virtuoso mobile long takes. Malle later dismissed them as “bravura,” but nevertheless they speak for his, and cinematographer Henri Decaë’s, skill at finding cinematic beauty in the everyday—another feature of the New Wave.
As he did in Elevator to the Gallows, Malle also shows the signs of encroaching modernization. Jeanne and Maggy’s boredom with the provinces posits Paris as the capital of modernity. And although Bernard expresses contempt for the snobbish Parisian bourgeoisie (his own milieu), Jeanne and his most likely destination is Paris, where Bernard comes from. Bernard’s car is itself part of an intricate play on automobiles as signifiers of change in postwar France, at a time when they were in the process of becoming mass commodities. His Citroën 2CV proclaims his bohemian identity, against Raoul’s absurdly ostentatious Jaguar sports car, while Jeanne’s smart, open-top Peugeot 203 is the means of her literal and metaphorical mobility—it is no accident the couple meet on the road (cars also play a key role in Elevator to the Gallows).
As well, the cars signify—and facilitate—the movement and exhilaration of the open air that marks many scenes in the film, enhanced by Decaë’s brilliant black-and-white cinematography, which graced the New Wave cinema from Malle to Melville to Truffaut. Like Bernard in his rickety 2CV, Malle, and after him other New Wave filmmakers, was happy to make do with cheaper, more improvised means of filmmaking in order to capture the elation and pleasure, the sheer fun of it all (The Lovers was conceived, scripted, and shot very quickly, its Venice screening in September 1958 coming just eight months after the first showing of Elevator to the Gallows). Bernard, as played by the discreetly good-looking Jean-Marc Bory, is a stand-in for Malle in other ways too. As Jeanne’s lover, he relays the director’s amorous gaze on his female star; as a rebellious, bohemian intellectual from the wealthy bourgeoisie, he sociologically duplicates Malle. Jeanne and Bernard’s final departure, leaving comfortable bourgeois life behind for an uncertain but exciting future, could thus also be seen to symbolize the director-star couple’s rejection of mainstream movies (in which both Malle and Moreau no doubt could have made successful careers) and their move toward the modern, iconoclastic cinema of the New Wave. If Malle from then on evolved along a slightly divergent, parallel track, The Lovers is testament to his (and Moreau’s) crucial role in defining the aesthetics, production methods, and ideology of the New Wave.
Ginette Vincendeau is a professor of film studies at King's College London. Among her recent books are Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, La haine, and Journeys of Desire: European Actors in Hollywood (coedited with Alastair Phillips).