During the time of Indochina, a 15 year-old girl is on her way to boarding school when a much older, wealthier businessman offers her a lift. The two soon begin a passionate much against her family's disgust. It also alienates the man's family who have already selected his bride. Soon, however their relationship begins to disintegrate.
Director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s carefully orchestrated comments to the press about his stars — March and Leung — supposedly intimate coupling when performing the sexual antics herein kicked up a lot of fuss of the did-they-or-didn’t-they? variety — the “Sinner From Pinner” quoth one ignominious tabloid headline in regard to London-born former model March — and raised the profile of this inneffectual and for the most part rather dull arthouse flick into the territoty known as “scandalous sex romp”, so guaranteeing bums on seats by virtue of curiosity value at the very least.
Set in Indochina at the tail end of the 1920s and based on the reputedly autobiographical tome by Marguerite Duras, The Lover charts the seduction of a French schoolgirl (March) by a wealthy Chinaman (Leung), neither of whom are once referred to by name. Travelling from her home in the country to boarding school in Saigon, the 15-year-old nymphette accepts a lift in aristocratic Leung’s gleaming black limo, with the two graduating in no time at all from a quick grope in the back seat to nightly liaisons at his bachelor pad where she “receives pleasure from this dark man from China”. As their affair intensifies, he is ostracised by his society family who have already chosen his bride, and eventually descends into an opium-induced haze of guilt and unreciprocated love.
While the numerous and tastefully lit sex scenes leave little to the imagination, with Annaud’s camera lingering long on flesh, the paedophiliac position is handled with some delicacy even if the script fails to fully articulate the moral nuances behind the coupling. Newcomer March proves a decidedly sultry and naturally photogenic presence, but overall the tone is one of detached amusement, best illustrated by the scene in which March’s older brother rifles through her suitcase in search of incriminating evidence, pulls out a pair of knickers and with a hearty sniff of said item declares: “These smell of Chinese.” Indeed.
Giving Jane March her supposed big break, yet really only allowing her to shag Bruce Willis in Color of Night, The Lover was controversial when it was shown for its sex scenes, but with current films pushing the boundaries evermore, it seems positively outdated. Thankfully Annaud's stunning direction takes in the beautiful scenery allowing a mild diversion from the scenes of romance.