Jeanne Moreau plays the over-indulged but ignored wife of a workaholic
newspaper owner, They live in a remote chateau in the French countryside, but
she travels to Paris frequently to visit her best friend, and to conduct an
affair with a polo player. When her husband finally becomes suspicious, he
insists on inviting both the friend and the polo player to their home for
dinner. On the way home, her car dies, and she meets a handsome young
archeologist. "Love can be born in one glance," Moreau purrs
in narration, "and in that moment all shame and restraint died away." The
young man takes her home, spends the night, seduces her, and leaves
with her the next morning, as both her husband and her lover watch.
Nico Jacobellis, manager of a motion picture theater in Cleveland Heights,
Ohio, was charged with and convicted of possessing and exhibiting an obscene
film when he screened this Louis Malle film, also known as The Lovers. What
was all the legal fuss about? Jeanne Moreau subtly exposes her nipples in a
dark sex scene. That was America in 1958.
The case rose all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and prompted a famous
statement about obscenity from justice Potter Stewart:
"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I
understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I
could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it,
and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."
What Potter's vague statement lacked in both legal analysis and
applicability, it made up in readily comprehensible common sense, so "I know
it when I see it" resonated sufficiently to become one of the most famous
phrases in the entire history of the Supreme Court.
The film became a poster child for freedom of expression, so its artistic
merit had to be defended in order to prompt the correct court decision, and
the aesthetic world was quick to embrace it, perhaps unduly. I find it rather
talky and predictable.