The Lover (L'Amant) (1991) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Jean-Jacques Annaud is one of the most interesting filmmakers in the world. 

He is extremely proficient. He takes a back seat to nobody when it comes to photographic composition, and his films always seem to be scored beautifully. The factor that has kept him from being recognized as the one of the world's greatest filmmakers is his choice of projects. He's a guy who doesn't like repeating himself, and likes to march to his own drummer. In 1986, he made a movie of The Name of the Rose, based on Umberto Eco's talky, convoluted, multi-lingual masterpiece that plays out like Sherlock Holmes in the Dark Ages. That film was hailed by many critics as a masterpiece, and I'd agree, but it managed only a seven million dollar domestic gross to help offset its twenty million dollar budget. 

So did he try for something more commercial next time? Not on your life. He filmed The Bear, a movie which has few humans and almost no dialogue. It is literally a story about a family of bears. This time, he managed a healthy $30 million gross. His recent projects have included Seven Years in Tibet, and Enemy at the Gates. Every film he has made in the past twenty years is rated 6.0 or better at IMDb. Several of them are above 7.0

Now, imagine what would happen if a filmmaker of that caliber, a man as proficient as Spielberg or Scorsese or Soderbergh, decided to make a soft-core porn film. Well, ol' Jean-Jacques did just that. How did the process work?

Obviously, he didn't need any help in cinematography or scoring or costumes or set design. His films have been nominated for about a gazillion Cesars, and several Oscars. What he did need was an erotic project which also had substantial literary and cinematic merit, something on the level of D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence himself had already been overdone, but the book which came to Annaud's attention was a semi-autobiographical account by Marguerite Duras about how she lost her lost her virginity. This met all his criteria:

  1. It was lurid. Duras pictured her relationship with a handsome, dashing, refined Chinese man old enough to be her father. Although her account is probably a fanciful gussied-up version of the reality, it was exactly the kind of sensationalistic story Annaud needed. The Duras character was 15 at the time of her deflowering, and the make-up people managed to make the actress (Jane March) look even younger.
  2. It had a valid literary pedigree. Duras was a female, a respected writer, and an intellectual. She wrote 34 novels, and was considered among the inner circle of Parisian intellectuals. She directed 16 films of her own. Her literary credentials were further buttressed by the fact that she was a war hero who once saved Mitterand's life! Her credentials and character simply cannot be impugned. These facts tend to dodge artfully around potential objections. Using a woman's actual words obviates the potential objections from hard-core feminists, and using the words of an accepted literary figure skirts around the age issue. (Do you hear many objections to staging Romeo and Juliet, or even filming it with nude scenes? Well, that's a play about a guy who sleeps with a 13 year old girl!)
  3. It had a perfect cinematic setting. Annaud may have passed on this project if the story had taken place in Shaker Heights, Ohio in 1972, but it actually takes place in French Colonial Vietnam in 1929, so Annaud was able to create an exotic world for his imagery.

So how did it turn out? 

Well, I think a picture is worth 10,000 words when it comes to cinematography. Check this out.


Not bad for a sex flick, eh? It is certainly the best photographed skin flick ever made. Pretty much as good as any flick, skin or not. You could stack it up next to Barry Lyndon or Crouching Tiger or Days of Heaven any other movie you could name, and it would not be embarrassed at all. 

The film is backed by a solid score and features Duras's own words, so it maintains a consistent tone and atmosphere which is sensuous and beautiful.  Many women like this film, despite the explicit content. I wish I could tell you that the whole is as good as its best parts, but it isn't. It is painfully (if artfully) slow. There's really nothing Annaud could do about the pacing. You can either have good, explicit, realistic sex or a fast-paced narrative, but it isn't possible to do both. Obviously, if you're going to interrupt the film's momentum for five minutes of explicit sex, the storyline is not going to advance. Given the need to balance the story and the sex, the slow pacing is understandable.

Is the sex truly that realistic? Tell ya what, my bet is that it was more than merely a realistic simulation. I'm pretty sure those two were really gettin' it on. And in fact, it seems very real, whether it was or not.

This is one of the best, most accurate films ever made about forbidden, purely sexual relationships, and one of the most explicit films that you can watch "as a couple", and find that she enjoys it more than you do.  

Tuna's comments in yellow: 

I can think of many films that have equally brilliant camera work, but most of them are among the greatest films of all time. The Lover is unique in one respect. Nearly every frame is spectacular. 


Jane March showed every inch of her body.

Tony Leung showed his buns and a brief erection.

It appears that Leung and March were not simulating their sex scenes, but actually doing it. One close up shows March either rubbing against Leung's erection or actually going up and down on it.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • Full-length director commentary

Scoop characterized it as a film about a relationship based on lust. I have to disagree somewhat. They both knew at the beginning that there was no future for them, but the Chinese man fell for her. The barriers between them were more than age, money and social standing. As a Chinese man, he was not allowed to be with an American woman, and she was equally barred from a relationship with a Chinese man. The forbidden aspect was probably part of the original appeal. He was to marry a rich wife he had never met,  but went so far as to ask his father's permission. The father answered that  he would rather see him dead. She was able to convince herself that she didn't care, but when she left for France, she was pleased to see him watching her depart from his car. A few days into the voyage, she realized that she cared more than she thought.

This is one of the more sensual and sensuous films I have seen, and is pretty hot in places as well.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 2/4, Maltin 2.5/4

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.1 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B. It has to be, because a whole lot of people who love this movie would not normally consider watching a film with explicit sex scenes. The romanticism and the literate woman's POV make it unique. This is the film Emmanuelle could have been if it had been made by real filmmakers with real actors. As beautifully photographed as any movie I've ever seen. (Tuna says: I agree with Scoop's B. Whether you see it as pure lust, or a study of star-crossed lovers doomed by their cultural heritage, it is an excellent film with broad appeal.)

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