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‘The Lover’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 13, 1992

Novelist Marguerite Duras' rueful, erotic account of a girlhood affair becomes an excruciatingly pretty sexploit in Jean-Jacques Annaud's antiseptic adaptation of "The Lover." Annaud, who depicted the discovery of the missionary position in "Quest for Fire," continues his exploration of boudoir basics in this tale of a 15 1/2-year-old French girl and her 34-year-old Chinese lover. Sex, as choreographed by Annaud, has all the spontaneity of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

The director's worldwide search for an adolescent Duras turned up Jane March, an appealing English model who brings moodiness and moues as needed to the role. March strikes a fetching pose, hip cocked, eyes distant, in the film's pivotal shot -- the crossing of the muddy, sprawling Mekong River that brought her to the Lover's attention. Tony Leung, a hunky actor from Hong Kong, seems a shade callow for the world-weary role of the Lover, a Paris-educated businessman who observes the shabbily attired mam'selle from his chauffeured limousine.

Though clearly intoxicated by this waif in a man's fedora, he is hesitant about approaching a white girl in the racist milieu of French colonial Vietnam. Still, she readily accepts his offer of a ride back to her Saigon boarding school. It is the beginning of a sad, dull affair between an unselfish, experienced Chinese and a churlish little masochist who lords her "whiteness" over him. He tries to buy her love and her loutish family's respect, but they remain bigots even as they line their pockets with his bills and guzzle his wine. Meanwhile, his father reminds him of his family obligations as his brokered marriage to a Chinese heiress draws nigh.

If this were a romance instead of coffee-table pornography, we might have a stake in whether or not the two get together, which they do -- and do and do. All the same, we'd know that a couple so disparate would never live happily ever after. Once the passion ebbed, they'd be damn lucky to achieve living-hell status. Of course, Duras never intented "The Lover" as a romance, but as Proustian minimalism. Annaud captures her remorse for things past, the sensory delicacies of Indochina, in the sumptuousness of his images, which all too often take the form of extreme close-ups. Mistaking intimacy for adjacency, he provides a shot of March's navel that looks like a postcard from Mammoth Cave.

Annaud, who wrote the adaptation with frequent collaborator Gerard Brach, showed more consideration for the cub in "The Bear" than he does for young Miss March, who is shamefully overexposed. True, Leung's bodacious, cantaloupe-colored bottom is showcased, but the only thing we miss of March's is the skin between her toes. Never mind that in portraying passion, the two seem to be demonstrating the proper use of the Salad Shooter.

"The Lover" is rated R for sex, sex and more sex.

Copyright The Washington Post

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