Smooth, hard and satiny-brown, the two bodies mesh with color-coordinated seamlessness, like a pants-shirt combo purchased at the Gap. The camera looks on from a respectful middle distance, lingering with discreet languor over the puddingy smoothness of breasts, buttocks, and bellies, the whole scene bathed in a late-afternoon haze of sunlight and shadow.
Sex! Passion! Voluptuous calendar-art photography! It’s time, once again, for the highfalutin cinema tease — for one of those slow-moving European-flavored specials that promise to be not merely sexy but ”erotic,” that keep trying to turn us on (but tastefully, so tastefully), that feature two beautiful and inexpressive actors doing their best to look tortured, romantic, obsessed.
Based on Marguerite Duras’ popular 1984 novel about the love affair between a wealthy 32-year-old Chinese playboy and an impoverished teenage French girl in French-colonial Saigon, The Lover isn’t exactly Emmanuelle — the characters do appear to be awake when they’re coupling — yet it’s one more movie that titillates us with the prospect of taking sex seriously and then dampens our interest by taking it too seriously. Why do so many filmmakers insist on staging erotic encounters as if they were some sort of hushed religious ritual? The answer, of course, is that they’re trying to dignify sex. But sex isn’t dignified — it’s messy and playful and abandoned. In The Lover, director Jean-Jacques Annaud gives us the sweating and writhing without the spontaneity and surprise.
The girl (Jane March) and the man (Tony Leung) — neither character is named — meet during a ferry ride across the muddy Mekong River. The year is 1929. She’s a boarding-school student, shy and inexperienced, but with the beckoning gaze of one beginning to grasp her power over men. He’s the sole heir of a vast fortune, an arrogant, insecure layabout who does nothing but spend his father’s money and have affairs. Before long, she’s meeting him in the squalid little bungalow he keeps for entertaining mistresses.
In The Lover, these two are meant to be burning their way through a thicket of taboos. Yet as characters, they’re so thinly drawn that it’s hard to see anything forbidden in what they’re doing. We’re just watching two perfect bodies intertwine in solemn, Calvin Klein rapture (which, admittedly, has its charm). Jane March, who actually looks Asian, makes a fetching love object, her ripe figure set off by a horsey, girlish grin. As an actress, though, she’s a blank. Tony Leung, at least, has a convincing decadence — he’s wormy yet sleek, a self-loathing reptile in silk suits — but the film’s attempts to transform his jailbait lust into a tragic romantic infatuation are too stilted to be convincing.
Of course, the hollow drama of The Lover might not matter so much if these two actually did something interesting in bed. As it is, they barely get out of the missionary position. With far more explicit (and inventive) erotic films available at almost any video store, one has to wonder: How much point is there to portraying sexual passion as serious and ”adult” if you only end up taking all the fun out of it? C