Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Lover is based on a novel by Marguerite Duras, supposedly a semi-autobiography about her early teen years in French-colonized Vietnam, where she met a rich (and much older) Chinaman (Hong Kong movie star Tony Leung Ka Fai) who becomes her lover. The young, 15-year old Duras is played by Jane March. Like the Chinaman, the girl’s name is never said out loud.
The movie is told from the perspective of the Girl, who meets the Chinaman one day on a ferry. He is immediately struck by her beauty and makes advances on her. The Girl is new to love and is a virgin, but because of his obvious status as a rich man, his expensive suit and new car, and her own status as a lower-class citizen, she reluctantly accepts his invitation of a ride. Soon, they become lovers, and through him the Girl learns about love, passion, and heartbreak when the Chinaman’s family orders him to marry a properly chosen Chinese woman, thus ending their relationship. By now, has the Girl already fallen in love with him? And how does he feel about her? Has it all just been about sex or does he feel something more?
The Lover is not a complex story. It’s quite simple, and simply told by Annaud and screenwriter Gerard Brach. The real treat of The Lover is its lush Vietnam cinematography, from the orphanage that the Girl stays in, where she and another girl are the only whites in the place, to the crowded streets of the Vietnamese markets to the expansive countryside, still untouched by the Vietnam War that has not yet come. Annaud (Enemy at the Gates) and cinematographer Robert Fraisse is most interested in bringing the period piece to life, and the images are quite gorgeous to behold.
Most likely people will know The Lover as an erotic story, and yes, it is quite erotic. There are numerous sexual encounters between the Girl and the Chinaman, starting from the taking of her virginity to her burgeoning sexuality, when she begins to assert herself in bed. Through the Chinaman’s wealth, the lovers have rented out a house in the busy marketplace where they meet each afternoon in secret.
The film comes in two formats, an R-rated and an unrated version. From what I can tell, the unrated version is not as explicit as you might imagine, but it does lengthen much of the sex scenes by a few minutes each. The entire movie is not all that explicit, even if you do see all of the thin and waif-like Jane March and Tony Leung’s buttocks. It can be most aptly described as an “artistically rendered erotic movie” — which means the sex looks really good and is shot to look “realistic.”
Jane March (Color of Night) is thin and small enough to play the 15-year old Girl, and much of her acting talents are still underdeveloped. There is very little dialogue between the Chinaman and the Girl, and much of the exposition is provided through voiceover narration. The narration is interestingly directed as if it’s someone reading passages from Duras’ book, and it might have indeed been. March is attractive, but not obviously beautiful, and her Girl’s gradual understanding of sexuality is well done.
Tony Leung, as the Chinaman, is appropriately unreadable, going from lusty older man to an overwhelmed son unable to escape his family’s commands. We are clearly seeing the Chinaman through the Girl’s eyes, so we don’t really get to know him as much as we do the Girl. In that respect, the role of the Chinaman is properly mysterious and hard to figure out.
The Lover isn’t a deep film, and it fails to capitalize on much of its potential regarding the sexual relationship between a young French girl and her much-older Chinaman lover. The film touches on the taboo subject when the Chinaman meets the Girl’s family, but the scenes are too brief and doesn’t fulfill its full potential. So much more could have been done regarding the forbidden subject that it’s a disappointment the film cares so little about it.
For much of the movie, Annaud is content to let his narrator reminiscence about the feelings of emerging sexuality and what may or may not have been love. It’s all very interesting if you like that kind of stuff. I could have used more conflict, or perhaps gotten to know the Chinaman a little bit more.
Jean-Jacques Annaud (director) / Jean-Jacques Annaud (screenplay), G’rard Brach, Marguerite Duras (novel)
CAST: Jane March …. The Young Girl
Tony Leung Ka Fai …. The Chinaman