'The Lover' is a coming-of-age film with a decidedly French twist

December 25, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Oh, those whacky French! Quelle goofs! Only they could come up with a story in which a 32-year-old man seduces and enjoys delirious sexual congress with a 16-year-old girl and end it with the man . . . as the victim!

But that's "The Lover," from Marguerite Duras' unfilmable novel as filmed by the master of the unfilmable, Jean-Jacques Annaud ("Quest for Fire," "The Bear") in the unfilmable country of Vietnam, where, happily for the production company, it's still 1929.

Duras' novel was essentially the dense and presumably mythologized memoir of her own longed-for and liberating defloration; it was a worldwide best seller back in the early '80s. However overintellectualized, the story materials remain undeniably squalid, even though Annaud does what he can to make them romantic and inspirational. They present Our Heroine (known only in the film notes as The Young Girl) as the rebellious intellectual offspring of some squalid white trash in the provinces of Vietnam, which, remember, was a French colony of Indo-China until 1954 and a date with history called Dien Bien Phu.

In any event, unloved by her brutish family (two brothers, who if they did not have accents would be called hillbillies, and a pathetic mother; no dad in sight), she has been shunted off to a Saigon convent-orphanage where, as one of the few French children among the offspring of the wealthy Vietnamese upper classes, she is much abhorred and isolated. Consequently she has developed a bold and somewhat intemperate personality. And she's just coming into her womanhood.

In this delicate role, Annaud casts Jane March. It's a brilliant choice but it leaves me quite unsettled. With her clothes on, March is a child: she has a girl's unformed face and callow range of expression and seems hideously vulnerable and awkward. With her clothes off, she's a woman, no doubt about it, and able to give herself to her older lover with extraordinary abandon. I supposed that is the point, for the movie is about the moment when the girl becomes the woman. But it gave me the creeps, for the movie so exults in the developed/undeveloped dichotomy March exhibits.

"The Chinese Man," as the notes identify him, is played by Tony Leung, and it's basically a wonderful performance. Though the Chinese Man is cultured and wealthy, though he blows through the mud-spattered Mekong Delta in a sleek black Morris Leon-Bollee limousine, beeping his way through the herds of water buffalo and rice farmers, Leung makes us feel his utter isolation. He's the man between cultures -- too cultivated and wealthy for Vietnam and yet never French enough for full acceptance by the French, a scene made clear when he takes her family out to dinner and they royally run up the bill as they swill like pigs, but still treat him like scum. This is one lonely guy.

rTC The seduction is as much her doing as his: she wants out, she wants womanhood, she wants a whole range of experience thus far denied her. She gets it. And how. The bracing originality of the the film, as Duras' own words read on voice-over by Jeanne Moreau make clear, is that the young woman, who will grow up to Marguerite Duras and write legendary screenplays like "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" and legendary novels like "The Lover," never, ever feels victimized. She has taken her own fate in hand, done what she must, and is still around to reap the rewards. Poor Chinese man was probably executed by the VC in 1968 or napalmed by a Phantom that mistook his Morris Leon-Bollee for a T-54. So it goes. Tout va bien.

'The Lover'

Starring Jane March and Tony Leung.

Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud.

Released by MGM.

R-rated.

** 1/2

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