The semi-autobiographical work, The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, was almost not published in America. How typical, then, that years later, it remains one of the best selling books and became a widely viewed film all these years later. American publishing has largely overlooked foreign authors until they reach the pinnacle of their fame and are then picked up years later. The Lover and most of Duras’s work falls into this category, as do other books like Betty Blue and authors like Jean Echenoz, and so many others.
The Lover, set in 1920s Indochina, the somewhat autobiographical tale tells the story of a young, precocious school girl (who would be Duras) who at age 15 ½ develops her first sexual relationship with a Chinese man who is significantly older. The Asian man is in his late twenties, is wealthy, old-fashioned in many ways and for the most part, true to his culture and social mores. That he falls in love with this girl is really an anomaly, a fact which he tells her repeatedly and in many ways, seems to resent. He knows that despite his feelings, he can never marry her.
At 15 ½, it’s the crossing of a ferry on the Mekong. This is where our story begins. At age 15 ½, the young girl is crossing the Mekong on the ferry. One assumes the young girl is Duras, who was known to write what she knew, and what she knew best, it seemed, was herself. Or perhaps it’s that she knew best how to present realistically, believably, was always some projection of herself (this theme appears in almost all of Duras’s books, but the same could be said of any author, perhaps – almost all work is somewhat autobiographical).
The girl has two plaits, wears a mans hat that she rarely takes off of which she says at one point – she is never without it, that hat, she says “makes me whole, I am never without it.” She also wears a white, gauze shift that is so thin that it is almost transparent, like a slip and well-worn ballroom dancing with paste rhinestones. She looks like a young prostitute, or a very precocious young girl, depending on your point of view. She is staying with her mother and her brothers in “the horror” she says of the house. This is a girl who can’t grow up fast enough; it’s hard to tell if she is wise beyond her years or simply curious and gets herself into a situation that is beyond her control. She’s not particularly beautiful, she’s ugly beautiful, the kind of girl you look at and can’t decide if she is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen or the ugliest. Duras’s work is always a series of contradictions – here we have youth and purity combined with a wizened woman’s weary manner.
The Lover was a breakthrough book for Duras. Telling of her life in Southern Indochina, on a “plane of birds”, as she says. She is dropped by her mother at the bus stop, and then takes a ferry across the delta. Here, for the first time, she sees the man who will in time become The Lover. He is a wealthy Chinese man, cultured and put together, almost perfect – a stark contrast to this tatty young girl with her worn shoes and paper thin dress. But with her foot on the rail of the boat that causes her bottom to push out and her young breasts thrust forward, she can’t help but attract attention. She’s a girl completely at ease with herself, and although as of this moment, when the Chinaman first sees her, she is still sexually inexperienced.
The Lover offers her a cigarette, which she declines – and gracefully, graciously, as if she’s used to this sort of thing. Her calls her a “young, white girl on a native bus” “it’s so surprising” he says, and compliments her hat – a mans’ hat on a young girl, and says she is so “pretty, she can do anything she likes.” He tells her he is just back from Paris where he has taken some business studies. It’s an awkward conversation, the kind you have with someone with whom you have nothing at all to say but are attracted to nonetheless and who you desperately want to fuck. This happens. They speak awkwardly and often, the film cuts to his hands visibly shaking.
Her offers to drive her to Saigon, a ride she accepts. She tells him she is seventeen. He is twenty something and jobless and “Chinese, what’s more…” she tells him. It’s hard to say if this is a game – one in which she just wants to exercise or test the control she has over men due to her beauty or sensuality, or if there is a genuine interest. It seems that this is more a curiosity – that she is somewhat bored and tired and rundown by her family, who are a mess with one brother who is clearly abusive and with whom there is a weird sexual vibe, a mother who is always sort of ragged and put upon, and another brother who seems a bit slow or ill and whom she wants to take care of. The desire to escape from such a situation is understandable, and as she is at the age of burgeoning sexuality, it’s no wonder that she would be curious. He has everything to offer her, and most of all, a chance to exercise some control over her life, which is otherwise completely out of control. What would it be like to take him in her mouth? To touch his pale, lemon skin that is like silk – so smooth, like parchment – not so different, really, from her own, though she is “white” he says. She doesn’t look it. She looks more Vietnamese/French.
There are many who would look at this film today or read Duras’s novel The Lover and consider both some kind of endorsement for pedophilia. To do so, would is to limit what this story is really about. If it’s a morality play, which I don’t think it is, it would have to do with what happens when a child feels unloved and goes about seeking it elsewhere. But this again is too neat of an understanding or analysis; it’s too shallow and easy.
In actuality, The Lover is both a complicated story as well as a simple one. It’s about desire, sexual desire– and in some ways, yes, it is about love, but that is not, despite the film’s name, the primary focus of the film. The underlying current here is that raw and primal thing that all of us has sought at some point in our lives, breasts heaving, heart racing, mouth ripening, begging to be kissed. Who has not felt such desire and longing. It may in fact happen at inappropriate times or when you least expect it or want it, but that is the nature of desire. No other film conveys this feeling quite as well as The Lover, and it does so without any kind of moral judgment. It’s not “bad” to be just sexually involved without love. Nor is it wrong in any way or is judgment passed if one does fall in love, as the Chinese man does with the young girl. Things just are what they are, and under the circumstances and the climate at the time, things that perhaps would not be accepted are accepted for what they are.
War and oppression change everything, and this film is set in 1920s colonial Vietnam, when native Asians and whites were to be kept separate. The power differential between the Lover (Tony Leung) who is part of a small faction that forms a wealthy Chinese enclave in Vietnam and Jane March (who plays the young girl) and who is be a poor, French national is an important part of this film. It’s no surprise that the young girl feels powerless in so many ways. Why should it surprise us then, that when she realizes the fantastic power she has over at least this one man, and likely others, that she would use it to turn the tables somewhat. Feeling powerless in the country you live, in your home, school, pretty much everywhere, would be enough to motivate you to use what little power you did have once and if you discovered it.
At school, her friend tells her about another girl named Alice who was a prostitute behind the schools’ back wall. The young girls says it has “always appealed” to her,” to go with men you don’t know. You don’t even see them.” “You never know their face,” she tells her friend, who is lying in bed next to her, fascinated by this. . Every woman is like that, they agree. All women feel this way, at least, that is what these two young girls dream up one night in bed in their boarding school dormitory. Can we blame them that both would “rather be prostitutes” they agree, than endure this boarding school where, according to them, they are bred and raised to eventually take care of the “lepers, the cholera stricken.” Given the choice, I just might do the same. It doesn’t sound so bad, particularly if you happen to have a man who is so nervous, like our Chinaman.
In this situation, for a change, it is the young girl who has the upperhand. It’s hard to see this as any kind of pornography or child molestation, though some of called it that, or said that the scenes in the film of love-making are an excuse for child pornography. Yes, there is a power struggle, but for the most part, it is Jane March who has the power in this film. The Lover is utterly at her command and desperate without her. Here is a man who literally waits outside of her school in his posh car, just to get a glimpse of her. He sits quietly in the back, his driver ready to go, just to catch a glimpse. In one incredibly beautiful scene, she spots him waiting there and goes to the car, pressing her mouth to the glass window where he sits, kissing the glass and opening like lips like the first spring bud.
Of course, they eventually make love. She says, “He tore the dress off. He tore the little white underpants off, and her carried her like that, naked to the bed.” This after she has told him she does not want to talk. He wants to make love to her, but she says she is “too little: and he can’t do such a thing.” Instead, she undresses him and goes about but making love to him with her hands and mouth; caresses…”the unknown novelty” (his penis). The voice over says “skin, skin, skin.” Regardless of your point of view, the love making scenes are incredibly well done, though a bit stylized. They are real enough, but lose some of the real grit of love making. It’s not all soft filtered light and warm roaming hands, as most of us know.
This all takes place in a late afternoon sunlight room, the light mostly blocked out by shutters, the sheets the same gauzy texture as everything else in the film. Distempered walls, the shutters, the “soiling of the blood” after she has lost her virginity and bleeds on the sheets (yes, of course, they wind up having intercourse anyway, though this may be on another day or later on in the scene; this was a bit unclear).
The lovemaking scenes are long and realistic, as noted, except for a few minor details. After they make love, he asks, is she sad? Yes, she says yes, maybe she doesn’t know. He attributes this to “making love in the daytime, to the heat.” She says, she is always a little sad. That she is a writer, and her mother has laughed at her. Small wonder she seeks him out. He is her Rescuer. He has money, desire; he makes love to her again and again. She asks him to do it. She thinks that is all he does in life. That it is as if it were a profession: The Lover. He’s too good at it, and in this way, is perfect for her needs – to be broken, and then made whole again, as if she is breaking the girl that was, to become something else entirely.
It is later, at dinner at a nice restaurant, that he tells her he could never marry her. “We have done it,” he tells her. It would be a dishonor for his family. This is one of the very few times during which politics or social mores are directly addressed.
Finally, she is confronted by her mother – who finds out she wasn’t at the boarding school. Her brother says she looks like a whore. Her mother seems to take a rather twisted satisfaction in bullying and degrading her daughter abut the clothes she wears, the places she has been sleeping (certainly not at the boarding school were she was supposed to be) and blaming her haggard, rundown state on the daughter. It’s the classic maternal guilt trip. Between the mother and the one abusive brother who insists on treating her like and calling his sister a whore, it’s no wonder she wants so much to escape, and what greater escape than orgasm. It may be temporary, and logically we may even know that this state of absolute bliss and freedom cannot last, but the fact remains that for those few minutes (or if you’re lucky, even longer…) it is as though the world and its problems and your problems cease to exist. We also know that it will happen again most likely.
Our character loses herself in love – or rather, she loses her old self in love and finds a new self. A self that abandons control of her body to another. A child who takes care of her family so much, finally allows someone to take care of her. Over and over again. Maybe it’s an optimistic point of view, but I like it nonetheless.
When the lover meets the mother and brothers, he takes them to yet another upscale restaurant, where the mother blubbers on about something and the daughter dances extremely provocatively with her brother – really too incestuous. Later, the lover and she return to his dark rum where he hits her hard across the face, pulls her down on the bed and rapes her.
This time, her eyes are open, she picks at them. Her expression is one of pain and humiliation and at the same time, pleasure. It’s too awful to think that any woman could receive pleasure from rape, or wants to be raped – that would be to glamorize, but too often I’ve heard accounts of incest survivors who felt guilt because they wanted love, and this was the only way it was shown. No matter how wrong it may be, if a child is unloved, they will take love any way they can get it, even if it’s ultimately incredibly abusive.
In this case, the young girl’s vengeance is to then ask the lover how much it would cost him to do “what he just did” to a prostitute, and then when he tells, she makes him pay that amount. In doing so, she somewhat takes the power back and remains the keeper of the reins. She literally charges him – makes him pay – for raping her. It is never spoken of again, and she seems not surprised by what has happened to her, which is really sad that such a young girl has such a cynical and worst-expectation view of the world.
It soon becomes clear that The Lover is obsessed with this young girl. He is jealous (set off by the overly provocative and close-hipped dance with her brother at the restaurant), possessive (for it should be him and only him, because now that he has deflowered her, he owns her he seems to think), and will not leave off about her returning to France. He cannot or will not marry her or legitimize their relationship. The best he can do is to offer her a stone that belonged to his mother – a diamond ring that she places on her finger.
All he can do to explain her lack of real faith or love in him is to force her to say that all she thought about when she saw him on the ferry was “money.” That, after all that they have been through, for her it was all about money. This isn’t really the truth, and he knows it. It’s that he cannot understand what exactly it is about, and that she doesn’t love him, must mean that she feels contempt or whatever the opposite of love is.
In reality, it’s a lot more complicated. Her desire seems to be curiosity and as noted, a need to escape and in a sense, be reborn. To be broken in order that she shall be made whole. So she chooses him, and he breaks her and then she is reborn. When her brother and mother accuse her of only wanting money and of sleeping with the Chinaman, she tosses the ring at the brother, but denies the love-making. Her one brother seems to take pleasure in beating her, but this time, she hits him back, which is a change. It is as if by taking her body and with intent, offering it up to another person, she has found her true power and reclaimed what was always, and always should have been, hers. One wonders if the brother did in fact rape her. Incest is not entirely out of the question in this story – and it’s a theme that runs through. Even the Chinaman is just a bit older than her brother, and abusive in many of the same ways. If you relive a trauma, but play it out differently, come out the other side victorious, maybe you get over it.
“A love like this, so strong, it never happens again in a lifetime…never. Never.” He tells her as they walk along the Mekong. Yet he is still supposed to marry some girl he “has never seen.” Does he want it? He tells her it is not about wanting or not wanting: it is about his father’s will, and that is it. His father would rather see him dead than with a white girl. Her response is one of the best in film history. Instead of breaking down and mourning, she simply tosses her head and says, “He’s right. And anyway, I’ll leave, and I have no love for you.”
Later that night, still sitting by the Mekong, the lover offers his jacket to protect from the chill. As she sits on the muddy shore, she knows what she will do. She will write. “Beyond the moment all I can see is that I will write, and that is the extent of my life.” She will write.
In all of this love-hate, the two still manage to form a kind of fidelity. They are married. She wears his ring, yet knows he is leaving. He says he can never marry her, yet he clearly loves her. And for all of her lip-service about hating him, she stays with him nonetheless. Their love may not be conventional or even a thing most can understand, but regardless of the hurts and the anger and the abuse, the whole love / hate of the thing, beneath all of it, there is such an intense passion that these two cannot seem to let go of each other. They will spin around and around like two moths to a flame, and repeat their dance over and over again. Again, again, again. Now.
She leaves. She is leaning on the railing like that first time on the ferry, and he was looking at her, and she was looking at him. As the ship pulls out, she spots his car, hidden behind some crates and he sits “crushed in the back”. In time, she is not sure that she didn’t love him, when she hears a waltz by Chopin on the ship as she crosses the Indian Ocean. It is only then that we see any real emotion – real sobbing, real tears .He will call her years later when he is in Paris and she is a famous writer. Duras writes, His voice trembling, he tells her that it is as before. That he never stopped loving her. Would never stop. That it would be that way until his death.
Maybe the same was true, after all, for Duras – for the book was written many years later, and to this day, is one of the most important books as Duras is one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century.
If only every love could be so enduring.