I engage in casual talk and playful banter with my husband, and polite small talk with the guide and server. But this is not just a usual day of sightseeing. Where am I? I’m in Sa Dec, Vietnam. A small town in the Mekong delta where no one goes, I’m told, except a few French tourists who know the story, read the book, or saw the film.
I saw the film. The Lover/L’Amant, from 1992. More than once, I’ll admit. The semi-autobiographical story of a young Marguerite Duras and her Chinese lover in colonial French Indochina in the 1920s. I can’t remember who recommended it to me or how I came to discover it, but this film and the story have stayed with me over the years, haunting me, like a riddle I cannot solve. Though the setting of their torrid affair was the Chinese town Cholon in Saigon, Sa Dec was where both their families lived. And it is the house of the wealthy Chinese lover, recently turned into a small museum, that we are visiting.
Before touring the house, we have lunch on the veranda. Fragrant jasmine tea is served in white cups, on a bright white tablecloth, on which I have also placed a jasmine flower that my husband plucked for me somewhere along the way. The symbolism is palpable. White, in Chinese culture, is the color of mourning and death, but also strength, courage and ancestral spirits. Ghosts. Jasmine, according to traditional Asian belief, penetrates the soul and opens up emotions. Its season of blossoms is short and sweet. Fitting, I think, considering the story.
In a nutshell: The French girl, an aspiring author whose family has fallen on hard times, meets a Chinese man many years her senior, heir to a family fortune, and about to be wed to an heiress he has never met. Their chemistry is immediate, motives complex and true feelings unclear. Unsurprisingly, they don’t marry and live happily ever after. But that takes nothing away from the depth of their passion, as the world in which they live had already doomed them from the start.
The Allure of “The Lover”
Romantic ideals don’t interest me. It’s the complexity of the story that pulled me in and still holds me. The layers of emotion, the conflicting thoughts, the baffling context in which the story takes place. It’s a portrait of a world that we are not that far removed from, as we continue to grapple with the same distinctly uncivilized aspects of what we like to call “civilization”. The authenticity of this story is what makes it so riveting and, inevitably, relatable.
The colonial narratives of superiority and the clannish, segregating imperatives of Chinese culture. The taboo of female sexual desire. Internalized bigotry, prejudice and misogyny that distort perception, override emotions and attempt to disconnect us from our humanity. And yet in the face of it all, love wins, at least in those brief, private moments of intimacy. The story is as uncomfortable as it is real, as bitter as it is sweet. Only unanswered questions are left, which suits me, because I like to ponder. I have a penchant for mystery and a taste for wonder.
After all these years I have yet to read the book but the film The Lover/L’Amant to me is a meditative masterpiece. With breathtaking cinematography and a matching ethereal soundtrack it’s a movie to watch in silence without interruptions, to appreciate every minute impression and detail.
The House of “The Lover”
To be clear, the French girl never set foot in this house- that would have been unthinkable. The bedroom walls here have no stories to tell. Sadly, the attractive Sino-French architectural style suggests a harmony that didn’t materialize in real life – except between the two lovers. The tour itself is short, as the house is not very big, but interesting enough to justify the entrance fee.
There is a sadness in the house, like a lingering sorrow for something lost, or something that never was there. It’s like all the precious antiques, carvings and lacquering serve as a facade: an impressively ornate image that hides behind it a darker reality. Our shadow aspects are the ghosts in this house, our dark sides the ones that silently call for our acknowledgement and acceptance.
I leave the house with a wistful sense of gratitude. As I’ve come to know, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all – and – it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have lost at all. Nostalgia is the sweetest feeling that accompanies a life fully lived, reminding us to say ‘yes’ when we want to, to courageously explore, to venture out into the unknown, and in the present moment create those memories to one day longingly revisit.
All images © Pauliina Parris. // All rights reserved.