Production began in 1989, with filming commencing in 1991. The film made its theatrical debut on 22 January 1992, with an English release in the United Kingdom in June and in the United States in October of the same year. The film won the Motion Picture Sound Editors's 1993 Golden Reel award for "Best Sound Editing — Foreign Feature" and the 1993 César Award for Best Music Written for a Film. The film was a box office success, and received fairly positive reviews from the general audience along with mostly negative reviews from American critics. Overall, the film's performances and cinematography were generally praised.
The primary characters are known only as the Young Girl and the Chinese Man. The daughter of bitter, fearful, poverty-stricken colonials, the girl is a pretty waif who wears an old silk dress and a fedora, and paints her lips bright red when out of her mother's sight. She and her family are French, but live in Vietnam where her mother is a schoolteacher to local children. Her weak-willed mother, violent older brother, and timid younger brother live in a rural section across the river. The girl is a loner but an excellent student, who dreams of being a writer.
The girl meets the Chinese man when crossing the river on the ferry to return to the city after a school holiday. He is the son of a businessman whose fortune was made in real estate, and has recently returned from Paris after dropping out of school. He has the look but lacks the self-assurance of the playboy he fancies himself to be, and he is mesmerized the first time he sees her standing by the rail on a crowded ferry crossing the Mekong River. After some awkward conversation, he offers her a ride to Saigon in his chauffeur-driven limousine and she accepts, although the two barely speak during the drive. In voice-over at the beginning of the film she originally gives her age as 15, but tells the man she is 17. He, as well, appears to exaggerate when he states he is 32, considering the usual age of the recent graduate at the time. The following day, he waits for her outside her boarding school, and the two go to the room he rents for entertaining mistresses in the seedy Chinese quarter, where they have sex.
They realize that "a future together is unthinkable" because she is scheduled to return to Paris soon, and he is arranged to marry a Chinese heiress. Aware of the limited time they have together, they fall into a relationship in which they shed all responsibilities that come with commitment. Every day after school, the girl goes to the rented room somewhat ambiguously acting out her pretend fantasy of the life of a fashionable courtesan.
The girl's family discovers the affair, and though at first angry, they encourage her to continue because the man is wealthy and able to pay off some of their debts. Despite this added tension, the affair continues passionately. The man even goes so far as to beg his father for his allowance to be with her instead of entering into his arranged marriage, but his father would rather see him dead than with a white girl. Though both devastated, the man marries his arranged bride, and the girl boards a ship days later to return to France.
Decades later, the girl has become a successful writer. In the final scene, the Chinese Man telephones her as he is visiting France with his wife. After some introductory reminiscence, he then comes to assure her that he never stopped loving her, and that he will not stop for the rest of his life.Jane March as The Young Girl
Tony Leung Ka-fai as The Chinese Man
Frédérique Meininger as The Mother
Arnaud Giovaninetti as The Elder Brother
Melvil Poupaud as The Younger Brother
Lisa Faulkner as Helene Lagonelle
Xiem Mang as The Chinese Man's Father
Philippe Le Dem as The French Teacher
Ann Schaufuss as Anne-Marie Stretter
All music composed by Gabriel Yared.
While adapting the Marguerite Duras novel into the film's screenplay, director Jean-Jacques Annaud and fellow writer Gérard Brach changed the age of "The Girl" from 15½ to 17 before deciding that they would have her reveal in the beginning that she is 15 and to lie to her lover saying she is 17, but tried to maintain the original structure and literary tone of the original novel. As with the Duras novel, none of the characters use names and are referred to in the credits as "The Girl" and "The Man". To find the actress who would play the girl, Annaud advertised in multiple cities in the United States and the United Kingdom, visited drama schools, and watched television. However, it was his wife who came upon 16-year-old British model Jane March's photograph in a teen fashion magazine and brought her to his attention.
When filming began 14 January 1991, March was two months away from turning 18.
Annaud first flew to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam in 1989 to view the original novel's setting, but was greatly disappointed at the state of the country. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he stated that the "best colonial hotel" offered "rats as big as this running through the corridors, spiders everywhere, and no air conditioning, of course. When we tried to use the sink, three drops of brown water--I presume from the Red River--came out of the faucet." He initially decided against filming in the country, and began scouting locations in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, all countries that have been used as settings to represent Vietnam in other Western films. A year later, he returned to his original choice, feeling no other country could truly represent the "tired museum". According to Annaud and MGM studio, it was the first Western film to be shot in the country since the reunification of the country in 1975. The government welcomed the crew, providing them with a governmental helicopter for use during filming. However, the filmmakers were required to clear all production storyboards with officials before they could be filmed, and an official remained on set at all times. All of the film's sexual scenes had to be shot in Paris as they could not be filmed on location. It took 135 days to complete filming, and due to the importation costs of shooting in Vietnam, the film cost $30 million to produce.
After its completion, the film was first screened in Saigon where it was well received by the "morally minded" guests. The Lover debuted theatrically in France on 22 January 1992. Its first English release came in the United Kingdom 19 June 1992. The film was licensed for release in the United States by MGM Studios, but for its theatrical debut, it first had to get past opposition by the Motion Picture Association of America. The organization gave the original film an MPAA rating of NC-17. MGM appealed after cutting three minutes of the film. Coupled with pleas from Annaud, MGM, and a sex educator who argued that the cut version was no more illicit than the 1992 sexual thriller Basic Instinct, the film's rating was changed to R. It hit American theaters on 30 October 1992.
The uncut version of the film was released to Region 1 DVD on 11 December 2001 with audio tracks in English and French and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
The Lover was released on Blu-ray in Germany in 2011 under the title Der Liebhaber. It is not region locked and comes with subtitle and audio tracks available in German and English. It received a FSK ab 12 freigegeben rating.
The film was a box office success in France taking in 626,891 admissions its opening weekend, playing in a total of 229 theaters. In total the film received a total of 3,156,124 admissions in France, becoming the seventh-highest-grossing film of the year.The Lover grossed $4,899,194 in box office receipts in the United States when given limited release to 103 theaters. It was nominated for the 1992 Academy Award for Best Cinematography and won the 1993 Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel award for "Best Sound Editing — Foreign Feature". At the 1993 César Awards in France, it was nominated for seven awards, winning in the category of "Meilleure musique écrite pour un film" (lit. "Best music written for a film") for Gabriel Yared's score.
Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 20%, based on reviews from 15 critics.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times praised the film, calling it "something of a triumph" and a "tough, clear-eyed, utterly unsentimental" film that was "produced lavishly but with such discipline that the exotic locale never gets in the way of the minutely detailed drama at the center." He also complimented the performances of Tony Leung and Jane March, noting she is "wonderful" and a "nymphet beauty" in her film debut.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times compared the film to Emmanuelle or the Playboy and Penthouse erotic videos, "in which beautiful actors and elegant photography provide a soft-core sensuality. As an entry in that genre, The Lover is more than capable, and the movie is likely to have a long life on video as the sort of sexy entertainment that arouses but does not embarrass." He continued, "Is The Lover any good as a serious film? Not really. Annaud and his collaborators have got all of the physical details just right, but there is a failure of the imagination here; we do not sense the presence of real people behind the attractive facades of the two main actors." Desson Howe of the Washington Post observed, "Director Jean-Jacques Annaud and adapter Gerard Brach provide more than a few effective moments . . . But the story is dramatically not that interesting. After establishing the affair and its immediate problems, Lover never quite rises to the occasion. Scratch away the steamy, evocative surface, remove Jeanne Moreau's veteran-voiced narration, and you have only art-film banalities." Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly graded the film C, calling it "one more movie that titillates us with the prospect of taking sex seriously and then dampens our interest by taking it too seriously. Why do so many filmmakers insist on staging erotic encounters as if they were some sort of hushed religious ritual? The answer, of course, is that they're trying to dignify sex. But sex isn't dignified — it's messy and playful and abandoned. In The Lover, director Jean-Jacques Annaud gives us the sweating and writhing without the spontaneity and surprise."
In the United Kingdom, Channel 4 noted "the nameless characters bring to mind Last Tango's search for identity through passion, and there's a shade of Ai No Corrida's intensity. But there is none of the substance that made those two films such landmarks of their genre, and while March and Leung are an attractive pair, the glossy look and aloof direction of the film leaves you cold." The critic for Time Out London thought its "sombre quality dignifies an otherwise shoddily directed movie" that is "basically a melancholic piece about the remembrance of times, places and passions lost." He felt the role of the Young Girl was "altogether too complex for the inexperienced March to do more than simply embody."