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A good ol’ fashioned doomed romance replete with eye-popping exotic locations, a traffic-stopping cast, lavish wines, great catering, guns, drugs, sex and lies, French actress turned director Nicole Garcia’s latest effort, Lovers (Amants), delivers the genre’s essential items in a slick film noir throwback carried by a trio of strong performances.
Starring Pierre Niney (Yves Saint Laurent), Stacy Martin (Vox Lux) and Benoît Magimel (An Easy Girl), all in top form here, this is the kind of dark and fatalistic love story that heads where you expect it to but remains altogether engrossing, even if some of its plot machinations seem far-fetched and the third act unravels a tad too much. For the 74-year-old Garcia, whose recent efforts behind the camera (From the Land of the Moon, Going Away) have garnered little attention outside of France, this Venice competition premiere could find a wider audience at home and abroad.
On paper the pitch is fairly boilerplate: A pair of scrappy young lovers, the student Lisa (Martin) and drug dealer Simon (Niney), are forced to split up when one of Simon’s clients overdoses on him. Lisa, heartbroken when her man flees the country, decides to move on. She soon meets Léo (Magimel), an older and wealthy insurance underwriter who promises her the kind of high-maintenance existence she could never afford. But when Simon pops back into the picture, Lisa’s new life suddenly clashes with her old one.
It’s a simple enough story, and one most of us have probably seen before. And yet, we’re gradually drawn into it by the pure magnetism of the leads, as well as by the way Garcia and co-writer Jacques Fieschi ground their narrative in a world of haves and have-nots, with Simon on one end, Léo on the other and Lisa caught in between.
Divided into three parts denoted by its three key settings — Paris, the Indian Ocean (specifically, Mauritius Island) and Geneva — the film moves efficiently from one location to another as Lisa transforms from the passionate girlfriend of a coke dealer to the perfect housewife of a successful if rather shady businessman, to trying to be both at the same time when she decides to carry on an affair with Simon while remaining married to Léo.
Working with cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne (Mr. Nobody) and production designer Thierry Flamand (The Command), Garcia places much emphasis on the atmosphere surrounding the trio as they head toward their impending ruin. In the very first shot, Beaucarne’s camera slowly creeps up on Lisa and Simon as they lie entangled in a shadowy bed. It looks like they’re already dead when they’re in fact waking up for a loving embrace. Later, when Léo is wining and dining Lisa on Mauritius, the drop-dead gorgeous resort they’re staying in does little to hide the fact that Lisa is miserable and that Léo practically forces himself on her in the bedroom.
Meanwhile, Simon, who disappeared out of Lisa’s life, happens to turn up as a tour guide at the very same island resort. The coincidence is a little too much to handle, even if film noir rules dictate that such things can happen — and usually must happen when the fates have their way. (An early scene of Simon and Lisa watching the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing hints at the bad things to come.) There’s another major coincidence in the third act that also feels like a stretch, although the filmmakers try to justify it through Leo’s web of professional connections.
Such questionable twists are compensated for by Garcia’s sharp direction, especially when it comes to her cast. Martin, first discovered in Lars von Trier’s NSFW diptych Nymphomaniac, delivers one of her better turns here playing an unusual sort of femme fatale — one who makes the men around her suffer and yet tries really hard not to get anybody hurt, at least for most of the movie. Niney, who was a member of the prestigious Comédie-Française theatre troupe before ditching the stage for the screen, convinces as a drifter-grifter with no viable choice but to cling to Lisa and her hefty allowance.
But the most memorable turn comes from Magimel, who’s never seemed so sleazy and forlorn, yet also tragically touching, as a man hoping to buy his way to happiness. Léo has a mysterious past and a dark temperament, but he remains altogether comfortable among the Swiss wheelers and dealers in his circle, buying art for investment purposes and organizing dinners in his glacial mansion.
For one such meal, Lisa hatches the terrible idea of having Simon serve as the chef, with Léo then hiring him as a private chauffeur. The two spend the night on the road together and you’d almost think they could become friends, until Léo unceremoniously discards Simon in a way only one-percenters know how to do, and in a vulgar gesture of superiority that Magimel renders with perfection.
It’s in such moments that Lovers finds its force, reminding us that the most powerful romances can only take you as far as material comforts, especially in the serve-or-be-served world Garcia lays out for us. You’re either young, in love and clawing to get by, or you’re filthy rich and filled with despair. In Lisa’s case it has to be one or the other, and we can tell from the very start of the movie that whatever she chooses, it won’t end well.
Production company: Les Films Pelléas
Cast: Pierre Niney, Stacy Martin, Benoît Magimel
Director: Nicole Garcia
Screenwriters: Jacques Fieschi, Nicole Garcia
Producers: Philippe Martin, David Thion
Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne
Production designer: Thierry Flamand
Costume designers: Nathalie du Roscoät, Jürgen Doering
Editors: Frédéric Baillehaiche, Juliette Welfling
Composers: Grégoire Hetzel, Daniel Pemberton
Casting directors: Stéphane Batut, Constance Demontoy, Tatiana Vialle
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: France TV Distribution