The same year as her first collaboration with Louis Malle in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, Jeanne Moreau also appeared in another one of his films, Les Amants. She 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 Les Amants, 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 film — notably in the voice over narration. Both are ideas that Jeanne Tournier must overcome in order to find happiness through sexual inhibition.
To call Les Amants 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 their inclination to chase those desires outside of their marriage as a radical, political act. With almost no financial freedom, they 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, but rather the structural implications of marriage are themselves inherently oppressive to the woman, as they have everything to lose should the union collapse.
It is incredible to think that Louis Malle was only 25 years old when he made Les Amants, as it seems to hold the wisdom and erotic impulse 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 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. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.