** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

Written by Annaud and Gerard Brach

With Jane March and Tony Leung.

Miscegenation is often seen in Western literature and film as a tragic menace. Othello crosses the color line and is tormented emotionally. Sax Rohmer made his Fu Manchu a villain who wields a hypnotic power over unsuspecting white naifs. Even the fate of King Kong can be viewed as a stern warning to dark furry brutes everywhere about the consequences of coveting wholesome blonds. The taboo against miscegenation also figures in the new film adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ autobiographical novel The Lover.

The form of miscegenation that stirs up a society’s insecurities most violently involves its women consorting with men of another race. Whites in Western societies obsess about black and Asian men. The Japanese are notoriously insistent on the racial purity of their progeny. However unsavory, the rationalizations for these attitudes should be the stuff of drama. Yet in mainstream movies interracial love has seldom been dealt with head-on. And when it is, the treatment tends to veer toward the sensationalistic (Mandingo) or the overly pious and one-dimensional (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). Sensitive and realistic portrayals are few and far between. The main reason, I suspect, is that serious-minded filmmakers, eager to score a polemical point, dwell on the forbiddenness of the subject matter at the expense of psychological depth. Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, for example, was controversial because the very idea of it, rather than the story it told, invited debate about the black man’s place in America’s sexual history.

Yet if films about the relationships between white women and black men touch a raw nerve, so do films dealing with relationships between white women and Asian men. But here the context shifts to the centuries-old power struggle between imperialists and the colonized. The vanquished Asians were supposed to be meek, obedient, and pitiable–unworthy of the society of whites. More than 70 years ago D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms milked pathos out of the furtive liaison on the fringe of London’s Chinatown between a frail immigrant and a much-abused Cockney waif. To Griffith’s credit, he contrasted the gentleness of the Chinese man with the brutality of the waif’s father and turned the lovers’ plight into a poetical plea for tolerance.

Hints of miscegenation pervade almost all the films in the teens and 20s that billed Sessue Hayakawa as the Oriental Valentino; much of the time, however, he was typecast as a lecherous villain. Eventually his dashing persona proved too suggestive, and he was succeeded by the asexual Charlie Chan figure–portrayed by Caucasian actors–as the chief Asian presence on the American screen. One notable anomaly was Frank Capra’s underrated 1933 masterpiece The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Capra saw the romance between a repressed American missionary and a strong, mysterious Chinese warlord (sensitively played by a Swedish actor) as a poignant attempt to reconcile “two cultures that are poles apart.” The film failed at the box office, partly because it was banned in the British Commonwealth. Since then Hollywood and European filmmakers have pretty much shied away from such romances, though they have occasionally served as a subsidiary plot.

As far as I know, The Lover is the first major commercial film in years to make this particular “forbidden love” its focus–though director Jean-Jacques Annaud has coyly insisted in interviews that it’s about “cross-cultural romance.” Perhaps the economic success of East Asian countries, in evening the political balance of power between East and West, has dulled the stigma. But in Duras’ novel the taboo is pivotal in the sexual power game between a wealthy Chinese man and a pubescent French girl.

Essentially an old woman’s narcissistic remembrances of sensuous things past (in 1920s Indochina), The Lover caused a scandal in France when it was published in 1984. The controversy was over more than just a respected female intellectual’s frank depiction of clandestine erotic encounters or her rhapsodizing about the “defilement” of a willing minor. The slim book also stirred up the French public’s uneasy feelings about their colonial past.

Vietnam was the crown jewel of the French empire. Its mostly ethnic-Chinese upper classes conspired with foreigners to exploit the resource-rich land and its peasants. The Chinese caretakers were allowed to keep their share of the spoils, yet they were not granted equal social status by the ruling French. Duras clearly saw the ironies and hypocrisies of her own sexual initiation at age 14 by a 31-year-old Chinese man. The Young Girl of her book was from an impoverished family at the bottom of the colony’s class ladder. One brother was a boorish bigot, the other was retarded. Her mother was a money-grubbing schoolteacher. Each personified an archetype of the “ugly colonial,” and none served as a role model. But the Chinese Man, as the girl’s lover is called, had plenty of money and experience, and he desired her for her virginity and her race. He offered her temporary refuge from the bourgeois confinement of her family and convent school. She was too young and shallow to care about his background, though he told her he had gone to college in Paris and had slept with French prostitutes. The two carried on trysts in a cloistered room in the heart of bustling, smelly Cholon, the Chinese district in Saigon. The illicitness and the power dynamics of the affair excited the Young Girl as much as the physical gratification. The Chinese Man was at once her servant and her protector. Soon, inevitably–like the mismatched couple in Last Tango in Paris–they tired of each other. He had to fulfill family obligations by marrying a virgin from his own class; she, feeling vaguely betrayed yet relieved, left for Paris, never to return.

The peculiarly erotic and nostalgic flavor of Duras’ reverie derives from the artfulness and piquancy of the interior monologue, which plays freely with the sequence of real incidents. Duras put a new spin on the hallowed French literary genre of the seduction of seemingly innocent Lolitas by worldly older men, but she also conveyed the ironic regret of an aged intellectual recalling the most intense moment of blossoming, carefree youth. Most likely, as her narrative at times hints, the past was not quite as she describes it. She chooses to linger over her momentary freedom and her fleeting power over a man, describing their lovemaking with a mixture of revulsion and pleasure at her own compliance and inchoate racism. The teasing charm of Duras’ memoir is sustained by the caressing cadences of her prose (especially in French, I’m told) and her mesmeric evocation of a sultry sensuality so different from the bookish ambience of her later life in Paris.

The deep ambivalence Duras feels about her Indochina days and her brush with miscegenation permeates her work: cultural dislocation, the past’s hold on the present, the futility of passionate, almost anonymous liaisons between men and women from dissimilar backgrounds are themes that frequently appear in her literary and film output. A provocative (and sometimes stubbornly opaque) director, Duras used to insist on adapting her own books and plays for the screen; she also wrote original scripts, alone or in collaboration. In Alain Resnais, for whom she wrote her best screenplay, she found a soul mate, a fellow jumbler of time and memory. The affair between a Japanese architect and a French actress chronicled in his 1959 Hiroshima, mon amour is haunted by the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima, by what the West did to Japan. The couple’s lovemaking, starkly detailed to highlight the contrasting tones of their skin, becomes a powerful metaphor in this bittersweet appeal for racial harmony.

Annaud was an odd choice to adapt The Lover. (The producers apparently thought Duras was too old and esoteric for the high-budget project.) A literal-minded director with an eye for stunning images, Annaud is not one for subtlety and psychological observation–at best he’s a highbrow Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction) whose craftiness at literary adaptation was proved by the box-office success of his 1986 film The Name of the Rose. Undoubtedly on the minds of The Lover’s producers was Annaud’s track record with location shoots (for the sake of authenticity, The Lover was to be shot largely in Vietnam–the first Western production to be filmed there): he had trekked to Africa for Black and White in Color, turned parts of Spain into a prehistoric landscape for Quest for Fire, and climbed the Alps for The Bear.

The Lover is gorgeous to look at: most of its scenes ooze tropical languor, and the colonial period is depicted with the precision and glamour of a fashion-magazine spread. Annaud also seems to have tried to imitate Resnais’ masterful translation of Duras’ prose. In the exquisitely lighted sex scenes, for instance, his camera hovers over the writhing bodies, tracing their contours and accentuating the skin colors. Yet because it doesn’t furnish a sturdy dramatic frame, The Lover comes across as soft porn in these scenes–all motion and little emotion. Missing from the script by Annaud and his longtime partner Gerard Brach are the ambiguities, the melancholic air, the ironic distance of Duras’ narrative–though I must admit that Jeanne Moreau’s weary, raspy-voiced narration adds a nice touch of regret.

In his casting, Annaud seems to have bought into the fantasy element of Duras’ reminiscences. The Chinese Man is portrayed by Tony Leung, a Hong Kong matinee idol who’s surely far more handsome, suave, and self-assured than the real-life lover–though Leung does a remarkably good job of acting reticent yet assertive, vulnerable yet lustful. Jane March, the English model “discovered” for the role, plays the young Duras as a toothy, pouty nymphet. It’s hard to believe that this sex-starved kitten will matriculate at the Sorbonne a couple years later. The cliche-riddled dialogue is laughable at times, and the secondary characters are caricatures. Equally annoying, miscegenation is used as a provocative come-on, then left unexamined.

Duras has reportedly disowned the film, and it’s not hard to sympathize with her chagrin. By stripping away the voluptuous veneer of her language and the gauze of her memory, Annaud’s adaptation has reduced her artful tale to a white woman’s wet dream.