Louis Malle turns the table on femininity and ennui by placing Jeanne (Jeanne Moreau), a bourgeois late-fifties housewife, at the centre of a masterful triad of Polo, the driving car and a soundtrack by Brahms. They narrate her journey from pre-feminist dissatisfaction, carrying her towards an undiscovered territory of erotic freedom.
Jeanne is tired of running the Dijon country estate she shares with Henri (Alain Cuny), her brooding, workaholic husband. She seeks fun and frolic in Paris (‘where life forges its own path’) with her playboy lover, Raoul (José Luis de Vilallonga) and best friend, Maggy (Judith Magre).
One day, curious to meet his wife’s Parisian friends, Henri invites them to spend the weekend at the house. En-route to greet her guests in her classic Peugeot 206, Jeanne breaks down and is helped-out by handsome archeologist, Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory), who also ends up joining the party. Jeanne and Bernard form a visceral attraction over which they have little control, and Raoul is discarded as old-candy.
Malle shoots the Polo matches wide, and they sit, an ageing tableau of unchallenged masculinity and tradition in which men show they can control their beasts alongside their long-handled mallets. All the while, women look on, clapping, giggling, and showing little interest in the rules. ‘What style he has!’ declares Maggy. Throughout these scenes Jeanne is bored: Polo and Raoul are pastimes, a pleasant, superficial distraction from marital and domestic life. They don’t satisfy her.
Malle commits considerable footage to Jeanne in a car. Alone, and with Bernard. These shots show her modernity, her independence and her questioning mind. Earlier in the film, Jeanne nearly crashes as she looks in the rear-view mirror, checking her reflection as she recalls Maggy’s comment, ‘Love agrees with you. You are unrecognisable.’ Malle’s commitment to revealing her internal journey is a triumph.
Later on, Bernard, the anti-bourgeois rebel rescues Jeanne in his 2CV: he drives her home, slowly, unable to ‘go faster,’ as he comments on how he ‘avoids all those awful people (the Parisians).’
Bernard is an earthy Prince, without armour, just amour. He makes Jeanne laugh, and the two, with the help of heightened-emotion supplied by Brahm’s soundtrack, embark on an evening walk. The terrain they cross is pastoral – bridges, lakes, trees and boats, and there, alongside her bedroom, they engage in Baudelaire-style voluptuous.
The voiceover flows: ‘Love can be born in a single glance. In an instant, Jeanne felt all shame and awkwardness die away.’ She wears a white nightie and he looks-on spellbound, dreamy-sweet and cloying.
Les Amant’s eroticism shocked American censors. Looking back, though, more groundbreaking was Malle’s determined rejection of the ‘Hollywood Goddess.’ Jeanne Moreau is something different. She is seduced by desire but is no passive princess. Sultry, with a schoolmistress’ deportment, Jeanne accepts herself, without guilt. She is faithful to her internal world. A fascinating heroine: artful and beyond archetype.
Director: Louis Malle (1958)