May 31, 1993 12:00 PM

IT WAS APRIL IN PARIS, AND ROMANCE, FOLLOWING the age-old script, was about to lake its course. Two lovers kissed on a busy street, and French photographer Robert Doisneau was there to record the embrace. His 1950 picture “The Kiss at City Hall” (Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Vllle) became a world-famous image of young love.

But, alas, limes have changed. This spring Paris has been gripped by a sordid courtroom battle over “The Kiss” that has evoked other, less tender emotions. More than one set of lovers are demanding recognition—and money—for being in the picture. And Doisneau’s reputation as a master of spontaneous street photography has been tarnished by a claim—and his own admission—that the shot was staged.

On one side of the dispute, which a Paris civil court judge will resolve on June 2, are Denise Lavergne, 65, and her husband, Jean-Louis, 66, retired printers who seek $93,000 damages from Doisneau. charging that he secretly took their picture while they were shopping near city hall. Denise Lavergne claims she recognizes her husband’s scarf in the shot, as well as “my earlobes…my eyebrows.”

But film director Françoise Bornet, 63, insists that she and her old boy-friend, lei low drama student Jacques Cartaud, now 66, were the kissers. She says Doisneau hired them to spend the day posing in various spots in Paris. Married to director Alain Bornet since 1961, Bornet says she and Cartaud shared “a great love, a great passion, and it came across thanks to Doisneau’s talent.” She wants damages of $I8,000 and future royalties.

In the middle is Doisneau, 81. The Lavergnes, who say they recognized themselves in the photo when it was becoming famous in 1988, insist that when they met him in 1990 he led them to believe that they were the couple in the photo and didn’t discourage them from talking to the press about it. Bornet says she was irritated when the Lavergnes became celebrities. “I thought it was a bit much, people usurping my identity,” she explains. She promptly sought written confirmation from the photographer that she and Cartaud were the pair in the picture. When Doisneau balked, she sued him. “It’s not a question of money,” says Bornet. “It’s a question of memories that belong to me. When someone tries to take [them] away, I say, ‘No!”

Bornet’s claim slung the Lavergnes, who hired a lawyer of their own to sue Doisneau. “We don’t enjoy al all being talked about as if we were greedy, mercenary people,” says Denise Lavergne. And if she and Jean-Louis were not the lovers in the picture, she asked, why didn’t Doisneau expose them?

Because, Doisneau ruefully told a French journalist last year, “I didn’t want to destroy their illusions.” The picture was probably of Bornet, he said. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to do a sincere photo, so I hired models,” he confessed. One colleague says the distressed Doisneau is his own worst enemy. “He’s a man who can’t say no,” he says. “I’m sure he went along with the [Lavergnes’] story without ever imagining it would bounce back al him. His fame came quite late in life, so everything to do with stardom, like lawsuits, is beyond him. He doesn’t know how to manage it.”

Distancing himself from the fracas is Jacques Cartaud, who broke up with Bornet six months after the photo was taken. To Cartaud, who declined to sue, it is enough that the photo stirs memories of “a beautiful love affair, the kind you live when you’re young…. It’s a very beautiful souvenir and a very beautiful photograph. The rest is dust the wind will blow away.”

LARRY WRITER

GATHY NOLAN in Paris

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