Like The Silence a few years later, The Lovers was an international sensation not on its merits, but instead due to the fact that it was rather racy. But keep in mind, this was racy by 1958 standards, which means one brief, passionate scene of lovemaking. There's a bit of a nipple, and a woman has a (gasp!) orgasm, which I don't think existed before this movie was released (I'll have to check the special features to confirm). This all makes me more depressed for people who lived in 1958 than it does make me more or less interested in the movie, which was Malle's follow-up to his debut masterpiece Elevator to the Gallows - which was made when the son of a bitch was just 24.
Age didn't seem to have much of an impact on that earlier film (which is in the collection, but I have already seen multiple times of the course of fifteen years), but it does seem to have hurt The Lovers, which feels mannered and a bit overly idealistic to the point of simplicity. Malle seems to agree in an interview from the 1990s that is included on Criterion's release. The film seems like it is an exercise in love philosophy rather than a genuinely realistic movie (perhaps the one thing it has in common with one of the more unusual inclusions in the collection, Chasing Amy, also by a director in his 20s, albeit a far inferior one).
The film focuses entirely on the radiant Jeanne Moreau, for whom Malle made the film. She plays a bored housewife in the country, stuck between her dull, controlling husband and her brief dalliances with a man in Paris whom she sees on weekend getaways. One day, entirely through chance, she meets a man and falls so head over heels in love that she abandons her entire life (including her young daughter) to be with him. The story is so simple that it hardly seems like the point of the film. And it isn't, really. These are archetypes, a fable meant to be timeless, classy even. Malle is working at poetry here.
But that's just it: the seams are showing. Though the director would go on to make many great films, The Lovers comes off as a failed experiment. Moreau's character reminds me a great deal of the unnamed protagonist of The Earrings of Madame de..., but her emotional roller coaster lacks the complexity of that film. The final switch over where she goes from mildly annoyed with the man to madly in love - willing to drop literally everything of value in her past life - is wildly abrupt and unearned. This is almost certainly on purpose: love has no explanations or reason, Malle is saying, it is a light that is turned on and obliterates everything that was previously visible. It's a silly notion, and I'm torn between two camps, one which sees the power of love to do things society deems unacceptable (like leave your child) and one which sees a misguided romantic's idealized love, a love - oh, if he only knew! - that pales in comparison to the real thing.
The movie is also obviously a stab at lyricism for Malle early in his career before he found his footing. Malle's best pictures are moving and beautiful, but they are never abstract (the ones I've see anyway). The whimsy feels forced and mannered instead of effortless. In the interview from the 90s, Malle seemed slightly embarrassed by the film, or at least by its success. Considering his life at the time - which found him as an aging, universally heralded director, a once divorced but now happily married father of a young girl of his own - it's not a surprise he would feel that way. For me, two years into a marriage to the love of my life with a baby on the way, The Lovers doesn't look like any love I can recognize either.