Lovers, The (1958): Malle’s Controversial Film (Legal Case at Supreme Court)

Teaming again with Jeanne Moreau, The Lovers (“Les Amants”), a follow-up to “Elevator to the Gallows,” promoted the international reputations of both director Louis Malle and star Moreau.

This feature pushed the boundaries of American censorship, stirring controversy similar to the one that had met Roger Vadim’s “And God Created Woman,” starring Brigitte Bardot, two years ago.

Based on the novel Point de Lendemain  by Dominique Vivant, the film centers on an ordinary woman, a humdrum housewife who gets involved in adultery, leading to rediscovery of her sexual desire and need.

The Lovers was Malle’s second feature film, made when he was only 25 years old. The film, a box office hit in France when released theatrically, was highly controversial for its depiction of allegedly obscene material when shown in America.

At the 1958 Venice Film Festival, where it world-premiered, the movie won the Special Jury Prize

Jeanne Tournier (Moreau) lives with her husband Henri (Alain Cuny) and child in a mansion near Dijon. Her emotionally cold and detached husband is a career man, a busy newspaper owner with little time for his wife; they often sleep in separate rooms.

Jeanne escapes to Paris regularly where she can spend time with her suave friend Maggy (Judith Magre) and the polo-playing Raoul (José Luis de Vilallonga), Maggy’s friend and Jeanne’s lover.

Jeanne’s constant talk of Maggy and Raoul arouses Henri’s curiosity and he demands that Jeanne invite them to dinner.  Jeanne’s car breaks down on the day of the dinner party, and she accepts a lift from a younger man named Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory), who drives her home. By the time they get back, Maggy and Raoul have already arrived at the mansion.

Bernard, an archaeologist, is the son of a friend of Jeanne’s husband, and he too is added to the guest list. Jeanne spurns Raoul’s advances, claiming it is too dangerous, but she spends time in a boat with the attentive Bernard. In the morning, to the surprise of everyone, Jeanne leaves with Bernard to begin a new life, though neither partner has any idea of what the future will hold.

“The Lovers” gained notoriety as the “Movie With the Nude Scene.” By today’s standards, the film is mild–the most suggestive moment shows Moreau’s hand falling on the bed sheets. Nonetheless, back in 1959, that scene provided fodder for outraged guardians of public morals.

The film led to a court case that dealt with the very the definition of obscenity. A showing of the film in Cleveland Heights, Ohio’s Coventry Village caused a criminal conviction of the theatre manager for public depiction of obscene material. He appealed to the US Supreme Court, which reversed the conviction and ruled that the film was not obscene (Jacobellis v. Ohio).

The case resulted in Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of hard-core pornography: “I know it when I see it.”  Stewart did not consider the film to be such.