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‘The Lover’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 13, 1992

"The Lover," the adaptation of Marguerite Duras' 1984 novel, is nothing if not naked. But don't worry, this forbidden-fruit movie is artistic. You can still go.

Consider this a parent's note. Tear it out and show it to the disapprover in your life. Tell him or her it's the touching story of a young woman's extended liaison with a Chinese lover. It's about her attaining self-realization. It's about love beyond cross-cultural boundaries and taboos. It's about the ties that bind . . . no, skip that. It's about young, taut bodies living life to the fullest, celebrating their nudity. Better make that "their youth."

This French production, by the team that gave you "The Name of the Rose" and "The Bear," is beautiful to watch -- and not just because English actress Jane March and equally nubile co-star Tony Leung will never need Slimfast. Cinematographer Robert Fraisse creates a beautiful, sepia-like, bygone-era tint to this drama, set in French-occupied Vietnam in 1929.

That's the year that 18-year-old March, her foot coltishly perched on a deck railing, is crossing the Mekong River to Saigon. On her way to another horrid year of boarding school, the French girl sees dandyish, white-suited, 32-year-old Leung standing next to her. When he offers her a lift in his chauffeured limousine, it's the beginning of a plush trip into camera-ready sensuality. They soon begin meeting in Leung's rented "bachelor room" in a seedy district, where the couple (plus more than a handful of sexual stunt doubles) will tryst regularly.

The difficulties are manifold. March's dysfunctional French-colonial family -- including a wacked-out mother(Frederique Meininger) and a psychotic, opium-addled brother (Arnaud Giovaninetti) -- will not accept such an affair. Leung, entirely dependent on his (equally opium-drugged) father's wealth, will not break the traditional arranged marriage with a Chinese bride that is his destiny.

As for the two of them, Leung knows March will never love him; in art movies, prophecies like that come easily. She knows he's nothing but a lover of women.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud and adapter Gerard Brach provide more than a few effective moments. Beyond her corporeal qualities, March is thoroughly believable. When she walks up to Leung in his car and plants a kiss on his window, her swoonish tentativeness gives the act incredible weight. But the story is dramatically not that interesting. After establishing the affair and its immediate problems, "Lover" never quite rises to the occasion. Scratch away the steamy, evocative surface, remove Jeanne Moreau's veteran-voiced narration, and you have only art-film banalities.

In the 1960 "Hiroshima Mon Amour," about the affair between a French movie actress and a Japanese architect five years after the bomb blast, Duras' screenplay achieved a satisfying thematic duality. Screenwriter Brach appears to aim for a similar Duras effect. But this time, East and West don't juxtapose. They just doff clothes.

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