My French Film Festival is back online with around a dozen features available for minimum cost. There is usually at least one archive film included and this year it is Jean-Jacques Annaud’s L’amant in a restored print from 2014. I didn’t make any effort to see this film on release. It was hyped I think and I assumed that it would not interest me as a vapid combination of heritage film and soft porn extravaganza. In 2022 it looks controversial primarily for the casting of the central character as a young teenage girl in an illicit relationship. What surprised me most about watching it now was the split in 1992 between leading critics whom I generally respect. Some were prepared to defend the film and others trashed it. These days I try to comment on what I see, how I think a film has been put together and what it might mean. So here goes.

The girl and the Chinese man meet on the ferry

L’amant is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel with the same title by Marguerite Duras published in 1984 and winner of the Prix Goncourt. An earlier novel drawing on her adolescent years in Indochina was published in 1950 and that was made into two films, one ‘international’ and the other a later French production in 2008 with Isabelle Huppert as the mother struggling to hold back the sea’s incursion into the land she had been fooled into acquiring. Known as The Sea Wall in English, elements of this story appear in L’amant. It is perhaps significant that Duras herself was not involved in the scripting of L’amant and that she wrote a second version of the story, published as L’amant de la Chine du Nord in 1991. The Duras connection might have been a stumbling block for some reviewers and one American reviewer claimed that L’amant was full of ‘arthouse banalities’. I’m not sure I understand that but it does say something about what happens when a French literary adaptation arrives in the US as a big budget English language film distributed by MGM.

Jean-Jacques Annaud (born 1943) is a French director who trained at IDHEC but who began his career in advertising before developing a portfolio of ‘big pictures’ mostly as English-language productions set in various spectacular locations. Claude Berri who produced L’amant was one of the major figures in French cinema as a producer, director, writer and actor. His biggest success as a director was the pair of Maurice Pagnol adaptations, Jean de Florette and Manon des sources in 1986. In industry terms, these were two names to be trusted with a big budget film shot mainly in Vietnam.

The couple’s first intimate encounter in the car

The Duras story sees a young teenage girl, known only as ‘The Girl’ who is heading back to Saigon to a large hostel for girls where she stays in order to attend a lycée in the city. She leaves behind her mother and two brothers in the town of Sa Đéc in the Mekong Delta. On the ferry she meets a wealthy and attractive ‘Chinese man’, who is also unnamed in the story. He offers her a ride in his chauffeur-driven car. There is an attraction between them and eventually over the next few weeks he will persuade her to visit his ‘bachelor room’ where they begin a physical affair. The man is close to an arranged marriage and the affair with the girl is a taboo for him as well as for the girl. But the story will not end with the girl’s eventual return to Paris as there is a brief coda. As the film begins the year is 1929 (when Duras was 15). When she gets into the car, the girl says she is 17. The man says he is 32 (which would have been Tony Leung Ka Fai’s actual age when he made the film). Annaud searched extensively in casting for the girl. Jane March had started modelling work at 15 in England. She was 17 when Annaud found her and she turned 18 at the start of the film shoot. The script included many scenes in which she would be naked and despite the use of body doubles she would later claim that Annaud had exploited her. Tony Leung was already a star in Hong Kong cinema in 1991 (a year when eleven of his films were released). Jane would have had the support of her mother (who had some Vietnamese-Chinese ancestry according to IMDb) but I don’t know if she was in Paris where the bedroom scenes were filmed or in Vietnam for the location shoot. Tony Leung’s time on set may have been limited because of his other films in production. IMDb suggests that Annaud spread rumours about ‘real’ sex on set to generate news stories. It looks like a potential case for investigation in the current circumstances. I haven’t seen anything else about the case so I can’t comment. The film was heavily cut in the US to get an R classification. In the UK it received an ’18’ rating with fewer cuts (or perhaps the submitted film was shorter). The version I watched online was a few minutes longer than the UK DVD releases. I’m not sure the cuts are that important. The early 1990s were a time when soft porn in mainstream cinema was still part of the offer. We live in a different world now where presentation of sex in the mainstream cinema is perhaps less common but much more explicit. What is presented in The Lover didn’t strike me as pornographic and I note that in France it has a certificate for ‘Tous public’. The debate about pornography v. eroticism is interesting, but I’m going to focus on other aspects.

The girl is a good student and destined to be a writer

What kind of film is it? The romance dominates the narrative but since both families are to some extent involved in the romance, this is also a form of family melodrama. It’s also a colonial melodrama, complicated by issues of race and class, though it involves a wealthy Chinese family rather than the directly colonised Vietnamese. It is also a form of ‘heritage’ picture, the French genre similar to the British idea of a heritage drama – wrapped up in nostalgia, costumes, beautiful houses etc. Finally it’s a literary adaptation and specifically a narrative associated with Marguerite Duras, a then still living figure associated with high culture. That’s a complicated mixture, largely ignored by most critics and reviewers. Berri and Annaud insisted on shooting in Vietnam, despite the cost of importing equipment and facilities. There is some use of matte work I think? Special effects work is not my forte and I’m not sure about how it’s done but there are several uses of long shots/aerial shots of the Mekong with steamships from France that maintain the colonial communities, otherwise Indochina is represented by street scenes, a dancehall, the Chinese district (Cholon), the lycée and the boarding house and towards the end of the film, a Chinese wedding. Vietnamese characters feature only as servants, stall-holders, waiters etc.

Walking through Cholon

The colonial melodrama is to a certain extent stifled or deflected by the main focus on the French-Chinese couple. Tony Leung gives a sensitive performance. His character puts up with the casual racism displayed by the girl and he doesn’t really become enraged until he meets the family and particularly her older brother. That anger is transferred to a rough sex scene with the girl but she in turn uses it as part of her fantasy exploring how it must feel for prostitutes. The sexual relationship between man and girl is intelligently explored and involves the possibility of love, the strength of tradition and the exploration of adolescence. My disappointment with the film is more concerned with the missed opportunity to deal with the colonial imagination of the girl and her family (which is seriously affected by the economic position of the mother and the events which make up the main narrative in The Sea Wall). We do learn something about the Chinese family, though only really via the dialogue. The Chinese man explains how the family migrated from China, selling their property and business to the Japanese in Manchuria. The historical background of this narrative seems to look forward to the collapse of the French influence in the region twenty years later and the complicated Chinese-Vietnamese relationships during the same period.

The couple visit the abadoned land the mother couldn’t protect from the sea

Overall, I did enjoy the film and I don’t think it deserves the critical mauling it got in both the US and UK, especially using the charge of ‘bad acting’ – I thought that both March with her brief background experience in modelling and Leung with his already celebrated career triumphs in Hong Kong were very good. I realise that when the film came out my knowledge of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema was still fairly limited but I hope I might have recognised the performance skills of ‘Big Tony’ (to distinguish him from Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who is probably better known in the US/UK because of his work in arthouse and major international productions). I was impressed by Big Tony’s English accent. I suppose, however, that it is a little odd to see a relationship between a young French girl and a Chinese man in Indochina conducted in British English and perhaps it does distance the relationship from its French colonial setting? The film was scripted by Annaud’s regular collaborator Gérard Brach. The music is by Gabriel Yared and the cinematography by Robert Fraisse. And I almost forgot that there is narration by Jeanne Moreau, presenting the the thoughts of the novelist, i.e. ‘the girl’ thinking back as the older woman in her Parisian writer’s room. Voiceover narration is always divisive for critics but it worked for me. Here’s a short clip from the film, when the couple meet and share the car ride to Saigon.