Caught a screening of Louis Malle's Les Amants at the IFC Saturday morning, and came away fascinated. It's hard to put my finger on what, precisely, I liked about the film, in part because it's such a protean work, constantly shifting, constantly reinventing itself.
It starts off as social drama - the conflict between the dull virtues of provincial life and the sparkling but superficial charms of Paris society incarnated in the person of Jeanne Tournier (Jeanne Moreau) - a woman whose frustrations with passionless domesticity drive her to infidelity as a fashion statement. But just when you think the movie is headed for an emotional showdown, with Jeanne's husband inviting her lover to spend the weekend at their country house in Dijon (something roughly like the confrontation in Stanley Donen's The Grass Is Greener, only less funny and more French) in drives a deus ex machina and before you know it you're in the middle of a lyrical if slightly overdone pastiche of romantic desire, complete with moonlight and boats and a couple dressed in white wandering hand and hand through the open fields while Brahms' ravishing Streichsextett No. 1 plays in the background. And then, just when you're starting to tire of Malle's visual poetry, the movie turns again, and you find yourself caught in a finale of nail-biting suspense, that is tinged in its free-wheeling, convention defying exhilaration, with just a hint of La Nouvelle Vague. Watching Les Amants is like watching a heady combination of Bunuel, Rohmer and Hitchcock, all held together by the vividness of Malle's vision, and the magnetic screen presence of Jeanne Moreau.
And yes, I did say Hitchcock. Because in its own way Les Amants is every bit as tense and nerve-wracking as a well-made thriller - not Psycho perhaps, but Shadow of a Doubt. The brilliance of the film's denouement lies in the way Malle effortlessly plays with our expectations, leaving us permanently off-balance, the question will she / won't she penduluming about in our heads. Les Amants is a subversive film, in ways that Ibsen would have been proud of, but unlike Ibsen Malle does not set out to defy convention outright; instead, he flirts with it, pushes his film to the brink of the morality tale and leaves us with a sense not of triumph but of uneasiness. Love, like the glimpse of a spotless white horse grazing quietly by the road in the final shot, remains a vision, and convention is a killer still on the loose, so that Jeanne's escape from its clutches may yet prove temporary.
But the last half hour of Les Amants is also notable for the way in which Malle captures not the mechanics of sex, but the hysteresis of intimacy, the body's need to touch and hold. This is the film about which Justice Potter Stewart (in Jacobellis v. Ohio) famously said - rebutting the claim that it was pornographic - that "I know it [pornography] when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that." It's a fairly inane legal statement, but watching the film you can see exactly what he means. By the standards of its time Les Amants is undeniably explicit (though compared to say, Lust, Caution it seems almost genteel) but what Malle is documenting is not lust but the fascination of the flesh with its counterpart, the reluctance of lovers to be parted, even for a moment, the surrender to an appetite so voluptuous it can seem like sloth.
In the end, you fall in love with this movie the way Jeanne does - unexpectedly, impulsively and a little guiltily; knowing that other people will never understand it, that you barely understand it yourself; certain only, as Jeanne says in the film, that such happiness is not to be resisted.