The same year as Jeanne Moreau’s first collaboration with Louis Malle in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, she also appeared in another one of his films, The Lovers (Les amants). The actress plays a provincial wife frustrated by her preoccupied husband and dreams of romance in Paris. The original screenplay clearly focuses on the adoration of Moreau herself, which grants her the special privilege of commanding nearly every frame, the camera lingering on her beauty and showcasing her agency as a powerful feminine presence.
Hair and costume play an important role in The Lovers, in particular during the first half in which Moreau has been “designed” with elaborate hairstyles, clothing and makeup that are as elegant as they are restrained. Not a single hair is ever out of place, and the costuming suggests immaculate repression, a purity too beautiful to be disturbed. Purity often goes hand in hand with shame, which is referenced throughout The Lovers — notably in the voiceover narration. Both are ideas that Jeanne Tournier must overcome in order to find happiness through sexual inhibition.
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To call The Lovers a feminist film seems perhaps a stretch; however, the screenplay of Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin borrows from D.H. Lawrence’s ideas of feminine sexual agency — most obviously Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Both works reveals how radical it is merely to acknowledge the sexual desires of women. They both suppose sexual dissatisfaction as one of the symptoms of inequality, and the inclination to chase those desires outside of marriage is framed as a radical, political act. With almost no financial freedom, the lovers are both tied to the expectations of their marriage in spite of their own happiness. An affair is risky, but it’s ultimately liberating from the confines of expectations that act as a prison. Painting with broad strokes, Malle never suggests that the husband is overtly controlling in The Lovers, but rather the structural implications of marriage are themselves inherently oppressive to the woman, as they have everything to lose should the union collapse.
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It is incredible to think that Malle was only 25 years old when he made The Lovers, as it seems to hold the wisdom and erotic impulses of a much older man. While some of this is obviously due to Moreau, who embodies the passions and fears of her role with elegance and desperation, Malle has such a sensitive touch, in particular how he handles some rather risqué sex scenes. While somewhat restrained, these scenes perfectly translate the liberation that Jeanne is experiencing. For a moment, Malle removes himself from the gaze and allows her pleasure to rule the screen.
Justine Peres Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema.