In his book Screening the Text: Intertextuality in New Wave French Cinema, T. Jefferson Kline makes the case that The Lovers “constitutes a remarkably complex meditation on the relationship between cinema and voyeurism, a meditation that becomes ‘visible’ only when read through/as a screen for a series of allusions, collages, and intertexts” (25). The chapter is entitled “Remapping Tenderness: Louis Malle’s Lovers with No Tomorrow,” and in it Kline argues that various cues within the film present it as a layered text filled with extra-diegetic historical references situating it as something more than merely a “rebellious” early nouvelle vague film.
Kline is correct that “[t]he presence of Rules of the Game in Les Amants is overwhelming” (27). Malle’s use of deep-focus photography hearkens back to that of Renoir, not only in terms of its formal phenomenality but also as a technique for juxtaposing class difference within the frame. While Renoir’s film is more concerned with two distinct classes, Malle relegates the servile class mostly to the background, as a canvass on which to map out the intricate and fluid dynamics of upper-class social life and its accompanying ennui in a way fairly consistent with Antonioni’s films of the same period.
The overall setting of The Lovers also reaches back to Rules of the Game, in an upper-class country home where personalities dwell together and collide for a brief period, bound not only to eat together awkwardly but to sleep together illicitly and spying on one another throughout. Camera shots down the upstairs hallway in The Lovers are nearly identical to those in Rules of the Game, and both are in turn replicated in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. The hallway functions as a social conduit through which to move between private rooms and in which to gossip over what happens behind closed doors. The hallway is the last stop before social barriers break down entirely and characters are left to themselves and their restless passions. Invitations abound to enter private chambers, and on occasion a voyeur catches a glimpse into a fellow lodger’s room, perhaps noticing that the bedclothes and linens haven’t been rustled, suggesting that he spent the night elsewhere. When they all retire for the evening (or so they say), husband and wife enter the same room as the others watch. When the lights go out, the wife leaves her husband’s bedroom and heads for her own, down the hall. Restless still, she later descends the stairs and wanders outside into a natural realm where walls cannot constrain her. On a walk with her third lover, she says, “The night is beautiful.” He riffs in response, “The night is woman.” As Kline points out, the nuanced echo is one of many instances of Malle’s overturning of a male power structure in favor of a neutral one, neither masculine nor feminine. The night is all-encompassing, surrounding, containing; and yet it is also darkness, “absence of visual empowerment by which man governs woman’s subjectivity” (46). He overturns her discourse and produces an ambiguous statement, and all the while she leads him into a utopic and nearly Edenic space. By complicating the power dynamic, Kline argues, the film moves into a neither-nor realm.
But Kline also observes that, unlike the novel on which the film is based, The Lovers features female voiceover narration. Further, it is the voice of Jeanne who narrates, although she narrates in the third person. Unusual at this point in cinema history, a female voice gives narrative power to a woman. Spectators have tended to privilege the narrator – when we see one thing but the narrator says another, the disembodied, God-like voice is to be trusted over the appearance of things on the screen. The disembodied nature of Jeanne’s voice, further still, removes the traditional figure of woman in cinema from exclusively embodied and visible for voyeuristic male pleasure to one with narrative agency who “exists” outside of her body and apart from it. The spectator cannot reduce her to her body, and within the diegesis, her lovers must face that she is an unruly woman, willing to leave her child and husband behind but only after bidding her daughter a tender farewell. The film’s title, then, refers not to the subject of the film but to its objects as seen through the eyes of the female subject. These are not “positions of authority” but rather “mere items in a series” (52).
Kline notes the prevalence of mirrors in the film, but only chiefly near the film’s end. In fact, mirrors are nearly ubiquitous from the film’s beginning. Kline argues that the mirrors indicate the “radical shift in register that is produced in the utopian play of Jeanne’s reordered space” (52). Certainly a utopia, always non-existent but always actively imagined, is “present” here in The Lovers, and certainly a reordering of Jeanne’s identity takes place. It is difficult to say whether Jeanne’s space is reordered. Thinking more in terms of spaces rather than space, we can refer back to the ways in which Jeanne navigates the spaces of Paris versus Dijon, the ostensibly urban versus the ostensibly rural, her room versus her husband’s room, the downstairs versus the upstairs, the inside versus the outside, the land versus the water. All of these spatial dyads offer instances of Jeanne’s agency and mobility. The film concludes with an abandonment of the domestic space (hence her unruliness) and an epilogue in a café where her voiceover admits to her uncertainty about the future.
Would be remiss if I didn’t mention the map on which the opening credits of The Lovers are overlaid, La Carte de Tendre. Kline goes into some detail on this map, first noting its history as a subversive mapping of a utopic space tracking the way(s) to love in a distinctly feminine mode. Kline observes the admittedly uncanny similarity between the map with a basic diagram of the female reproductive tract and other similar images. Although Kline pushes the importance of this map onto many features of this film as a text of collage, he rightly attends to it in a way that apparently no other scholars have done. Were this map but a representation of France or Dijon, it would serve a different function. But Malle’s choice of using a map of a non-existent land with particular historical and mythical functions orients the film thematically, at least. Whether we are to read the name of “Jeanne Moreau” in the opening credits as a kind of name for the “land” itself may push the point of collage, but Kline’s argument, pursued throughout the film as a collaged text, holds water.