3 Films by Louis Malle
April 13, 2006
French filmmaker Louis Malle was born in 1932 in Thumeries which is located in Northern France. He grew up in a wealthy family and attended a Catholic boarding school near Paris at the age of 12. After World War II, Malle studied political science in Paris but ended up changing his mind and studied film instead. He got his first hands on experience as a camera operator for the famous oceanographer, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, working on his legendary documentary, Le Monde du silence in 1956. He also worked as an assistant for director Robert Bresson before striking out on his own with his feature film debut in 1958.
While Malle has a diverse body of work, one reoccurring theme that is explored in this new box set from the Criterion Collection is the loss of innocence and the coming-of-age rite of passage. The three films that are included in this set all feature young, adolescent protagonists who are faced with some harsh realities of life that threaten to shatter their complacent existence.
Murmur of the Heart (1971) is a sometimes playful, sometimes serious yet heartfelt coming-of-age story. When we first meet Laurent (Ferreux) he’s collecting money for the wounded in Indochina for the Red Cross with a friend. Soon afterwards he’s stealing the latest Charlie Parker LP from a record store. He and his two brothers are adolescent boys full of life (and the camerawork mirrors this energy and vitality) and obsessed with sex.
Laurent is just starting to discover girls (he’s already started smoking). At times he’s insolent like many children of that tumultuous age, testing the boundaries of what he can get away with. He’s told by one of the school’s priests that sex is wicked and that it is a sign of weakness to give in to the lure of the flesh. Predictably, he ignores this advice. Laurent’s brothers help educate him in rebellious ways, giving him a cigar to smoke, inviting girls over when their parents are away (getting him drunk and one girl even teaches him how to kiss) and taking to a brothel so that he can lose his virginity.
Malle made a fantastic film in the tradition of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). He skewers the hypocrisies of the adult world while perfectly capturing those awkward adolescent years. Murmur was also controversial in its day for the way it portrayed incest, stirring up all kinds of debate and condemnation.
Malle continued to stir things up with Lacombe, Lucien (1974), a film about a young Frenchman named Lucien Lacombe (Blaise) who goes from dabbling with the French resistance during World War II to becoming an informant for the Gestapo. With the same kind of unflinching honesty and authenticity that he displayed in Murmurs, Malle applies it in this film’s depiction of Lucien’s loss of innocence – a metaphor for France’s loss of innocence when it was occupied by the Germans during the war.
The seeds for Lucien’s transformation are planted early on when he kills a little bird with his slingshot for no apparent reason. He is like a little child trapped in a teenager’s body. If the tone of Murmur was playful, then Lacombe’s is considerably darker. Malle presents a harsh world that Lucien inhabits. For example, early on he helps a group of men lift a dead horse into a cart and then hunts and kills rabbits with his father’s gun.
Lacombe, Lucien is a damning critique of Nazi collaborators and how willingly they ratted out their fellow countrymen. This is personified by Lucien who doesn’t seem to care about much. He joins the Gestapo only because they take him and don’t reject him like the resistance did. Malle’s film went on to spark debate that divided French public opinion since WWII as strong opinions were voiced about the collaboration and resistance during the German occupation. People also objected to a protagonist who didn’t care either way and was shown in a sympathetic light.
After an unsatisfactory stint in America, Malle returned to France and made Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) about a friendship that develops between two boys living in Nazi-occupied France while attending a Catholic boarding school. Julien (Manesse) is sent there by his mother much to his dismay. Once there he meets and gradually befriends Bonnet (Fejto) over The Three Musketeers novel. Over time, Julien begins to suspect that there is more to Bonnet than meets the eye. He claims that he’s a Protestant even though his surname does not suggest this inclination. When Nazi collaborating militia arrives at the school and demand to search it, the priests hide Bonnet and no one else. His secret leads to a heartbreaking conclusion.
Once again, Malle demonstrates his deft touch with young actors and the ability to get excellent, believable performances out of them. He also does a fantastic job depicting what life must’ve been like for these boys at that time. Malle captures the dynamic between the boys – the playful roughhousing, the hazing of weaker students, and the secret defiance of school rules and so on.
Every so often there is a reminder that WWII rages on, like the occasional air raid siren that sends all of the boys to the dank, dark basement under the school where lessons continue until the lights go out. It should be noted that this movie is quite autobiographical as Malle attended a Catholic boarding school that also harboured Jewish students. The film also features a small role for a young (and very beautiful) Irene Jacob as the school’s piano teacher. Au Revoir Les Enfants did not spark the same kind of controversy as these other two films but it did provoke a debate on the role of clergy in the resistance movement during the war.
As they did with their impressive John Cassavetes box set, the folks at Criterion have done it again with an excellent primer on Malle and his films.
“Pierre Billard” features an interview with the film critic and Malle biographer. He talks about how Malle’s life informed his work. The director grew up through the invasion, occupation and liberation of France during World War II – a time period that played such an important role in his life that he would revisit it numerous times in his films.
“Candice Bergen” was Malle’s wife for 15 years until his death in 1995. She talks about her personal recollections of him – his joy of working on documentaries and the crushing disappointment he felt when Vincent Canby savaged Alamo Bay (1985). It is nice to hear her recount several anecdotes about her husband with obvious fondness.
“Pour le Cinema” features excerpts from this French T.V. show about Murmur and Lacombe with clips from both movies juxtaposed with soundbites of Malle talking about them. There is also some great, vintage on-the-set footage of the director working with the actors.
“Louis Malle at AFI” is an audio recording of Malle speaking at a seminar in 1988. He talks quite eloquently about his childhood, working with children and directing amongst other things.
“Louis Malle at the National Film Theatre” includes two audio recordings of Q&A sessions from 1974 and 1990. Malle talks about France, the role music plays in his films and how real life informs cinema and vice versa.
“Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant.” This short film, featuring Chaplin’s endearing Tramp character, was made in 1917 and figures prominently in Malle’s Au Revoir as the boys and their teachers attend a screening of it. Malle chose this particular short for the feelings of freedom it instilled in Jewish children who dreamed of going to the United States.
Finally, there is “Joseph: A Character Study,” a profile of the antihero from Au Revoir by Guy Magen. There are some excellent observations about the character in this cinematic essay.