A deceptively boilerplate film noir with shades of drab eroticism, Nicole Garcia’s Lovers belies an astonishing sublimation of its cultural and existential milieux. Premiering amidst an especially weak lineup at Venice, and receiving an almost-unanimously negative response, her much-maligned latest originally bore the title of Lisa Redler, named after its unhappy protagonist. Lisa (Stacey Martin), a Parisian student in a hotel school, finds herself caught between two worlds, yet part of neither; at first attached in body and in spirit to Simon (Pierre Niney), a low-level drug dealer, their relationship comes to an abrupt end when he flees the country and abandons her after a client’s accidental overdose. The next three years are elided with a simple dissolve; Lisa is next seen in Mauritius, applying for an adoption alongside her older and wealthier husband, Léo (Benoît Magimel). Her life and circumstances have improved immeasurably — from waiting tables to being waited on — until, per the conventions of noir, who else shows up by way of the Indian Ocean as a tour guide but Simon himself?
Much has been made, critically, of Garcia’s penchant for exaggerated coincidences and suffocating greyscale, whose respective qualities of anti-realism and anti-romanticism run counter to most contemporary expectations of the genre. And yet, like Benoît Jacquot’s equally illuminating, and hence unpopular, Suzanna Andler, also centered around a woman in crisis, Lovers effaces the performative intricacies of its peers to reveal an insatiable violence at the heart of modern love. Transplanted from the uncertainties of youth and working-class ennui onto a stratum of older men and their mysterious public personas, Lisa finds herself unable to extricate her purpose and passions from a gaping sense of inadequacy, one primarily defined in bourgeois terms. The days pass and whittle away whatever affection she might have once possessed for Léo, while offering her the tantalizing prospect of reuniting with Simon; neither lover, however, proves eternal in the face of ephemeral plans and pleasures.
Breezily straddling the years and continents, Lovers addresses the age-old disparities of class and social backgrounds with newfound abstraction. The film’s opening shot, of Lisa and Simon locked in naked embrace, hints through the pearly contours of their flesh at a radiant, immortal sanctity between soulmates. This radiance soon dissipates, making way for Garcia’s stifling psychological opacity that speaks, where lesser filmmakers crumble, to her uncompromising directorial strength. Her characters resemble the pawns of a chess game, but their symbolic roles are imbued with an acute empathy sidelined by most in favor of more dialectical concerns: the reunion between Lisa and Simon contains a fraught poignancy mirrored in Léo’s knowing cynicism which, in spite of his boorish affluence, he tries his best to mitigate. For a film this inured to the pessimism of a world in which love and money can’t quite buy each other, Lovers masterfully subsumes its worldly insights under a tragically tender story of both.
Published as part of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2021 — Dispatch 2.