If adultery was as drab and zestless a business as it’s made to look in “Lovers,” nobody would engage in it — in which case Nicole Garcia’s languid, boilerplate-stylish romantic melodrama would gain at least a measure of the novelty it so sorely lacks. Unspooling in competition at the Venice Film Festival, this French three-hander offers an old-fashioned blend of desire, betrayal, criminal activity and young, naked, attractively entwined bodies. So why is it so plodding and unsexy, and why do the lovers of the title generate nary a matchstick spark between them? A marginal effort for all involved, “Lovers” sees actor-turned-director Garcia failing to regain form after 2016’s turgid Marion Cotillard vehicle “From the Land of the Moon,” and while the star trio of Stacy Martin, Pierre Niney and Benoît Magimel will generate some interest on home turf, few distributors abroad will be seduced.
That Garcia and regular co-writer Jacques Fieschi’s screenplay is an original one comes as something of a surprise, if only because the narrative — with its quaintly straightforward emotional dilemmas and repeated reliance on whopping coincidence — feels so disengaged from the modern world that you expect it to have been adapted from something dustier. Would that the pithy literary spirit and moral urgency of James M. Cain or Georges Simenon, either of whom could have jotted down this story on the back of an envelope, were at all in evidence: “Lovers” is sparse and often terse, but it’s some way off hardboiled.
At least it looks frostily handsome, though Christophe Beaucarne’s wintry widescreen lensing is so heavily desaturated that it winds up complementing the script’s general pallor. The film opens on a slow pan over the sleeping nude limbs of Lisa (Martin) and Simon (Niney), glowing alabaster white in a darkened room: Briefly, they look more like sculptural forms than living, breathing people.
The first of the film’s three chapters, announced with onscreen title cards, covers Lisa and Simon’s hedonistic Parisian love affair: She’s a bright hotel-school student, he’s a drug dealer to the bourgeoisie, and together they live a life that suggests “heroin chic” didn’t actually eat itself in ’90s. But they’re too beautiful, damned and willowy to last, and sure enough, fate intervenes when one of Simon’s clients fatally overdoses in their apartment. After covering up the death, they resolve to flee the country together — only for Simon to jump the gun, vanishing without trace and leaving Lisa in the lurch.
In the film’s second chapter, we skip ahead three years and hop to the island of Mauritius — the balmy tropical climes of which make only the mildest of differences to Garcia and Beaucarne’s monochromatic palette. Lisa is now lovelessly married to wealthy older businessman Leonard (Magimel), and they’re busy perusing Oceanic island orphans to adopt. (“His money is him, he gave me a life,” she says in defense of her pragmatic marriage, though said life meets just the minimum requirements of the word.) And who should be working at the luxury beach resort they check into but Simon: It’s not the last time “Lovers” demands we swallow a hefty dose of happenstance to keep its slender story on track.
After putting on the barest display of wounded resistance, it’s not long before Lisa once more falls hard for Simon’s alleged sinewy charms, throwing her sensible new life into disarray. The ensuing conflicts and runarounds proceed largely as expected, toward a trumped-up climax that would feel higher-stakes if we cared one iota about any of these wan, silk-wrapped characters, whose love triangle rarely threatens to shake them out of their suspended, cash-cushioned reality. The adoption subplot occasionally flickers with the promise of social commentary that might situate proceedings recognizably in 2020 — Leonard is glibly cynical on the subject of parenting a Black child — but nothing much comes of it. The lovers’ feelings for each other prove film-consuming, if not terribly deep, and often evoked most vividly by Daniel Pemberton and Grégoire Hetzel’s plangent, trembling score.
The actors aren’t exactly to blame for finding little to animate in their papery characters, though Martin and Niney never convince us that Lisa and Simon have the risk-it-all soul connection we’re told they do: They talk about so little but themselves that it’s hard to tell where or how either person exists in the outside world. Magimel, settling comfortably into the character-actor phase of his career, unsurprisingly fares best as Leonard, the one of the trio with the most subtly articulated interior angst: a small, insecure rip in his moneyed makeup that occasionally shows through his bespoke suits and glistening marble surrounds. Garcia and production designer Thierry Flamand, for their part, ensure that no taupe interior surface goes unpolished: Perhaps aptly, the film is as impersonally good-looking as the characters who populate it.