When you're ready for a really rich, beautiful movie about tragic love, this is waiting for you. A fifteen-year-old girl enters into an affair with a man in his thirties. She is trying to escape the dreariness of her impoverished life and he is trapped by an impending arranged marriage. By the time they realize they're in love they also must face that they have no future together.
When I lived in Ann Arbor, smaller independent movies would only play for a short time. You might read about some film sensation in the New York Times, then find you only had a certain Wednesday or Thursday to see it, and if you were busy or not in the mood, too bad. A slightly bigger movie might get a week, and if you had something like The Piano, perhaps two weeks. This movie played for a week, and I saw it, and really liked it, and saw it again, and loved it, and then saw it once again, to make sure to catch it before it left. And I remember during that time being in a record store and overhearing a female clerk telling a co-worker that she, too, had loved it so much she ended up seeing it three times that week.
For a few years, this was my answer when asked what my favorite film was. I always knew I wanted to see it again to get it on this site, but over the course of years you begin to wonder "Will it still hold up? Or was it just that I was younger and more easily swept away?" So it was a delight to discover that not only does it still hold up, but is even richer and more moving for being older, and better able to comprehend the complex emotions going on here.
This is an adaptation of the novel by Marguerite Duras, and when I read the novel after seeing the film, it was a wonder they were able to make anything coherent out of that rambling mush of words (I have since re-read it and found it much more involving and moving--although the screenplay making anything linear out of it is still a miracle). We open with sounds, images of skin, hair, and paper, all disconnected, and pan around a desk of an older woman we are to understand is Duras herself. The sounds coalesce into music and the images into a narrative, as we hear the voice of Jeanne Moreau as the older Duras say that when she was eighteen, she aged. She is now fifteen and a half, and we see her as a young girl aboard a skanky ferry in Vietnam. Her character is named "the young girl" and Tony Leung is named "the Chinaman" in the credits, so we'll call them Jane and Tony here, after the actor's names.
Jane, played by Jane March, actually fifteen at the time, is aboard the ferry to Saigon where she attends school. This is taking place in the 1930s. She and her family is French, but ended up there after a failed venture of their mother, who now teaches at a school in a small, impoverished town. The family is poor themselves, and Jane is in a dress that is not far removed from a burlap sack. We have a brief flashback in which we see that Jane has an older brother, Pierre, who is a bully, but gets away with it because the mother indulges him. With a little prodding, the mother admits that she loves Pierre more than the rest of them. She also has a younger brother, Paul, who is sensitive and often crying from Pierre's cruelty. Pierre steals money from his mother, which she turns a blind eye to.
Then, back on the ferry, where Jane is self-possessed and wears a man's fedora. A shiny black car gets on the ferry, and the man in the back stares at her. He gets out and stands near her, in a white pressed suit and slicked black hair. He is a rich man (we are to understand that Vietnam had a large Chinese population as well as French settlers at the time). They meet, and talk, and he offers her a ride to school. We see a dead water buffalo in the fetid river as they cross on the ferry.
On the ride, he stares at her. Their hands grow closer together and finally touch, his finger gently caressing hers. We see the car from a distance, but by the time she gets out she is a bit hot and bothered, and we are to understand that they toyed with each other a bit. She goes to the girls' school, where she has a somewhat dreary life. She has a close friend, Theresa, who climbs in bed with her to snuggle at night. They talk about what it would like to be a prostitute, or the vocation they are being trained for: caring for lepers. Theresa says she'd rather be a prostitute than care for lepers, and Jane dreamily says "They'd be lucky. Those men."
One day when she emerges from school, the black car is waiting there. She gets in, and they go to his bachelor apartment in the middle of a market in the Chinese ghetto. The movie makes the sights and sounds of the busy, chaotic market very evocative. Jane asks if this is where he brings women for sex, then says she wants him to treat her just as he does those women. They have sex, and afterward he says "I'm afraid of loving you," and she replies "Oh, I'd rather if you didn't love me." As they have sex inside, we are aware of the busy market and passing of people just outside.
Afterward they bathe and talk. She is poor. He is from a noble family, and has never worked. He does nothing, and is expected to do nothing, until he marries and continues the family line. They discuss how he would never be allowed to marry a virgin, so now that they have had sex, they could never marry, to which she breezily responds "So it's for the best then. After all, I don't like the Chinese." They continue their affair, which is quite explicit (especially on the unrated disc), but it is all sensual and erotic, and we can sense that they are deeply into each other. They speak of his impending arranged marriage without personal involvement. Jane asks if his intended wife is pretty, and he replies "I've never seen her."
SPOILERS > > >
Jane goes home and her family is outraged that she is hanging out with this man, and the school is reporting that she has spent nights away. She tells them that he is rich and obsessed with her, but she cares nothing for him, she just likes the money and favors. They come to dinner at his expense, where the poor family wolfs down dinner and wine, the drunken mother laughing uncontrollably when she sees the amount of money it has all cost. Jane all but ignores him, pretending for her family that he means nothing to her, which Tony absorbs all night long with quiet dignity. When they are alone, he violently uses her as she ignores him. Afterward, she asks how much what they've just done is worth. Her mother needs money. He takes out the money and throws it down. Jane gives it to her mother. Next we see the mother telling the school that Jane must have her freedom to sleep where she pleases, all her troubles with the affair now vanished.
But by now it's undeniable that the affair can go nowhere. And that everyone knows about it. No one at school will talk to her, and a girl holds a ball that has touched her as though it has cooties. His father calls him in and forbids the affair, moving up his impending wedding. Soon we see that while she is still casually saying things like "I have no love for you" right to his face, he is really fucked-up over her.
< < < SPOILERS END
There are a lot of things I'd like to tell you about the ending, but it's probably best for you to find them out for yourself. This time, I was much more impressed with Tony's side of the affair. This is the aspect I was unable to fully grasp when I was younger--how devastated he really is over her, and how she is simply too young to understand that, or understand how her words an actions are affecting him, leaving him to deal with it all alone, even when she's there in the room with him. The movie ends in a full-throttle romantic way, not holding anything back, and at a certain point Jane has to face that, despite all her bravado and outward lack of concern, he got to her, too. The voice-over says: "She was unsure of having loved him, with a love she hadn't seen, for it had lost itself in their story." The tragic/beautiful irony is that she had the big love of her life while she wasn't paying attention.
This is directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, previously known for the caveman epic Quest for Fire and then The Bear, both largely dialogue-free. Leung is a well-known Chinese actor, but not the same one you know from Infernal Affairs and In the Mood for Love. Jane March, who is utterly flawless here, went on to deliver one of the worst performances of all time in Color of Night, and thus ended her short career. Of course, she also seemed to suffer the curse of young actresses who appear in highly sexual parts, i.e. that she is then only considered for highly sexual parts, and her acting ability is dismissed. Nevertheless, who knows what happened, she works perfectly here, and was utterly atrocious in Color of Night.
What else? The movie is filled out with numerous unobtrusive special effects that are perfectly integrated. It had a slow, languorous movement that perfectly suits the material and creates a little spell. The music is a little, um, early 90s French when you hear it on its own, but works perfectly within the context of the movie and is invaluable in creating the atmosphere of lost, tragic love. All of the supporting characters are filled out well, especially Frederique Meininger as the mother, who I appreciated much more this time for her convincing portrait of a ruined woman unable to see how she is responsible in numerous ways for her own situation.
Anyway, when you're in the mood for something tragically romantic and beautiful and languorous and slow, this is out there waiting for you, and it's pretty much guaranteed to please.
Yes! It's a wonderfully rich and sad romantic film.