Sunday, 8 June 2008

les amants (d. louis malle, w. malle & de vilmorin)

A man wandered to the front before the screening of Les Amants at NFT2 and mentioned that the cut we were about to see was the censored British version, not the uncensored French. He then said he was sure that this wouldn't affect our enjoyment, and assured us that the film would be as pleasurable as the wonderful weather outside. This was probably not a polite dig at the kind of lunatics who choose to watch a black and white subtitled fifties film on the first truly beautiful day of the year, but if it had been it would have been justifiable. I had my own reasons for retreating to the sanctuary of the cinema: when the world is on your shoulders, there's nowhere better to escape to, beyond the range of mobile phones or the diversions of one's own brain.

Truffaut liked Les Amants, but said it wasn't a masterpiece. I'd heard of the film but as I watched it I didn't really get it. The beautiful Jeanne Moreau is bored with her husband, a Dijon newspaper man. She makes regular trips to Paris where she stays with her socialite friend, Maggie, and conducts an affair with the blandly elegant Spanish polo player, Raoul Flores. Her husband grows suspicious and insists she invites Maggie and Raoul to Dijon for supper. Driving back home, she breaks down, and is picked up by a humorous young man, Bernard, played with a hint of modernity by Jean-Marc Bory. Bernard drives her home, her husband insists on him joining the quartet for supper, which is a desultory affair, everyone goes to bed, planning to wake at four to go fishing. Moreau escapes the attentions of firstly her husband then Raoul, before wandering out into the night air where Bernard jumps her. They have passionate sex, declare eternal love, and drive off just as the others are getting ready for the dawn fishing expedition.

It's only worth summarising the plot in such detail to demonstrate that there isn't that much of a plot. There's clearly something Flaubertian about Moreau's character (named, funnily enough, Jeanne), on whom no moral judgement is passed at any point. However, there's not enough there to explain why, as I later learnt, people queued round the block to see the film when it first came out in Paris, or indeed why the film had been censored by the British to such an extent that it was worth mentioning before the film screened.

Its at times like these that the NFT notes come in handy. The missing scene was one which, whilst not quite showing it, implied that Bernand had had the good grace to perform cunnilingus on Jeanne, which helps to explain why she was quite so ready to hop into his 2CV and drive off to start a new life with him. It also explains why the British Board of Film Censors had little option but to save the British public from the side-effects of this French perversion, as well as explaining the film's attraction to French men, and women, when it first came out. However, without this revelatory moment, the first time, apparently, it had been performed on a cinema screen (or implied, because, so the notes tell us, Bertrand glided down Jeanne's body before disappearing from shot), the full effect of the film is kind of lost. Obviously the main point for Malle and Moreau (who were lovers at the time the film was made) was to push the boundaries, and embrace realism in all its erotic as well as psychological possibilities. Once the British censor reached for his scissors, (let's assume they're a he), the full potency of their endeavour was somewhat undermined.

I'm not sure if, even had the relevant scene been present, it would have altered my perception of the film. Its quest for realism has been left behind in the decades that have passed. It may well be that Les Amants helped open the door to the sixties, but once the door was open the horse well and truly bolted. Nevertheless, it's worth watching to see Moreau give her remarkable performance as a woman in search of meaning in a life which appears to have bequeathed her none. The echoes of Madame Bovray are strong, and although the film's narrative does not do her character's story justice, her performance undoubtably does.

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