Driven by a fierce intellectual curiosity that would find the filmmaker hungrily roving from subject to subject, both in the narrative sense and the journalistic one (he shot around ten documentaries in his career), French filmmaker Louis Malle was a cinematic explorer who turned over various and many stones.
And in his long and venerable career, he aspired to do it all: elegant mystery-noir pictures (“Elevator To The Gallows”), humanist dramas (many centered around childhood; rites of passage and traumas like “Murmurs Of The Heart” and “Au Revoir Les Enfants”), documentaries of all kinds (including one with Jacques Cousteau, “The Silent World,” that brought them both to the international stage with a Palme d’Or win and a Best Documentary Oscar), romantic caper flicks (“Atlantic City”), lustful and licentious sexual dramas, (“Damages,” “The Lovers”) and narrative-defying experiments (the philosophical conversation piece “My Dinner With Andre”) just to name a few.
Often exploring socially and politically taboo subjects like suicide, incest, or French collaboration with the Nazis, Malle consciously tried never to repeat himself. It is a mark of his success in this regard that this week the Criterion Collection — which has released an astounding 16 of his films onto their boutique DVD label to date: surely some kind of record — issues two new polar-opposite Malle films, which are as unlike each other as each is to the rest of his oeuvre; the whimsical Tati-esque “Zazie Dans Le Metro,” and the surrealist and bizarre “Black Moon.”
While Malle was lumped in with France’s Nouvelle Vague for a brief period in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he was a little old, and would amass a body of work too varied in sensibility, to really be considered a true member of that groundbreaking group; it was mostly made up of younger, less experienced directors, many of whom graduated to filmmaking only after a near-obligatory stint as a Cahiers du Cinema critic. Indeed his objective, unobtrusive, and almost invisible brand of filmmaking was antithetical to their raison d’être. Malle had already established himself in various roles, like as an assistant to Robert Bresson, within France’s film industry, before the New Wave hit, and this worked to his advantage, freeing him to venture into genres and styles as they caught his interest, without owing any fealty to ideas not his own and unconstrained by any kind of auteurist agenda. So while smoky gangster noir films like “Elevator To The Gallows” could be (and were) branded as New Wave-esque, Malle’s subsequent eclectic oeuvre defies that association, encompassing both the experimental (though even his most challenging work was never as strange as Godard‘s most conventional) and the classical, and pretty much all points in between.
“It took me my entire life to paint with the freedom of a child,” was one of Malle’s favorite quotes from Pablo Picasso; his work aspired to capture the innocence, spontaneity and honesty of humanity and especially children.
The list that follows is really just a sampler of that amazing back catalogue, and comprises the two new Criterion releases, plus three of our favorite Malle films. As we make no claim to this being a definitive retrospective of the director’s work (though one of those will definitely happen at some future point) notable exclusions like “Atlantic City” and “My Dinner With Andre,” must be excused under plea of subjectivity: we simply consider our three picks to be a good primer and hope this short taster menu will whet your appetite for the cinematic banquet that awaits you, should you explore Malle further.
“Elevator To The Gallows” (1958)
Malle’s first film, released when he was a mere twenty-six (tick-tock, aspiring filmmakers…) is perhaps best known for its classic Miles Davis score — mostly improvised by the legendary jazz musician, even without seeing the film, it vividly summons up rain-soaked Paris streets and is a true hall-of-famer, meshing perfectly with its subject matter. But as good as the score is (and it really is one of our all-time favorites), the film shouldn’t be forgotten. Following Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), a former French soldier who conspires with his lover (Jeanne Moreau, in her breakout role) to kill his employer, and her husband, an arms dealer, it’s as full-on noir-ish as French cinema gets (Malle had just worked with Bresson on “A Man Escaped,” and it shows). That’s not all though: in the subplot, featuring a young couple who steal Tavernier’s car, Malle foreshadows the arrival of the French New Wave a few years later, even if those upstarts never fully embraced the director — Cahiers du Cinema called him “a director in search of a subject.” But that’s unfair: while some dismiss this film as mere genre fare, that overlooks the political subtext and the post-colonial anger felt towards the generation above, expressed so violently here. It’s also one of the most beautiful black-and-white movies ever made: DP Henri Decaë, who’d worked on Jean-Pierre Melville’s early films, kills it here, and the shots of Moreau wandering the streets of the city are, deservedly, much copied. Malle may have made more ambitious films, but few are as fully realized as this one. [A]
“Zazie Dans Le Metro” (1960)
Certainly a change of pace if you’re more accustomed to the better-known Malle pictures like “Elevator To the Gallows,” “Atlantic City” and “Au Revoir, Les Enfants,” “Zazie Dans Le Metro” seems like a big left turn if you’re watching his films out of order (say, in order of Criterion release!). But it’s actually only his third feature-length effort and speaks to the filmmaker’s desire to constantly switch things up, even relatively early on in his career. A romp into the world of lighthearted comedy and perhaps a modest homage to the whimsical films of Jacques Tati ‘Zazie’ is madcap and even screwball-ish; Malle as you’ve never seen him. Starring Philippe Noiret (best remembered as the projectionist in “Cinema Paradiso”), Hubert Deschamps and introducing a wonderfully precocious Catherine Demongeot, ‘Zazie’ centers on the misadventures of its titular character, a mischievous 9-year-old sent to stay with her transvestite uncle. She just wants to explore Paris and see the metro, and, chafing under the boring custody of her uncle, the child escapes and, well, pretty much screws with anyone who dares get in the way of her impish fancy, in the manner of a rascally rabbit you may have heard of. Indeed, perhaps just as influenced by Looney Tunes and Buster Keaton, tonally, ‘Zazie’ does take a while to adjust to, but once you’ve settled into its zany little groove it can be quite the silly, endearing little picture. Childhood would go on to become a central theme in Malle’s work, with both “Murmur of the Heart,” and “Au Revoir Les Enfants” dealing with impending adolescence and the loss of innocence, but the vibrant, stylish and bursting-with-color ‘Zazie’ is a much brighter celebration of what it means to be a kid. The main problem? The wacky escapades overstay their welcome and ‘Zazie’ never settles into much of a narrative (we can only take so many sped-up running around shots). What is initially charming and cute tends toward the grating by the end of 90 minutes, at which point you’ve also sat through perhaps the longest food-fight ever put on film. At worst, however, it’s a harmless effort that’s shiny enough in parts to raise a smile. [B-]
“Murmurs of The Heart” (1971)
Charming, sweet, funny and fondly told, ultimately, Malle’s ninth feature-length drama is perhaps one of the most loving and yet controversial and fucked up family values/sexual awakening films on record. An endearing coming-of-age drama, the picture centers on a precocious teenage boy growing up in bourgeois surroundings in post-World War II France, and chronicles his relationship with his paterfamilias as the youngest in a family of five. His stuffy, intellectual gynecologist father believes he’s a pest, his twisted, faux-sophisticated older brothers are constantly harassing him and his enabling, Italian trophy-wife mother (Lea Massari) dotes on him like a baby even though he yearns for his own voice and independence. We watch young Laurent (Benoît Ferreux) steal jazz records (Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker tunes feature throughout), masturbate to erotic literature, measure cocks with his brothers, torture the family’s cooks and seethe when he witnesses his mother having an affair: many of the various difficulties and struggles of youth. But a heart murmur lands Laurent in a sanatorium away from his family and eventually into a sexual encounter with his far-too-loving mother. That the tone is so sweet and jovial right up until it takes this turn is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable elements of the film (at least on paper). Yet even then, the easy-going picture pulls it off, managing not to alienate or repulse the audience, but instead leaving them maybe just just a little puzzled (thinking, ‘hmm, so that’s how they do it in their family?’). As shocking and controversial as much of it sounds, ‘Murmurs’ is a tender, graceful and effortless picture that wonderfully captures the nostalgia and innocence of an adolescence most of us can relate to — minus those awkward hook-up years with the parents, of course. [A]
“Black Moon” (1975)
Easily his most opaque and inscrutable film, “Black Moon” is evidence that something happened during the mid ‘70s and early ‘80s that caused Malle to start to experiment (see “My Dinner With Andre”). Perhaps it was a boredom with narrative logic, as there’s precious little of it on display here: set during a futuristic war between men and women, the film centers on a 15-year-old girl (Cathryn Harrison) trying to escape the horror by retreating to the bucolic hinterland, only to find herself in the grounds of a bizarre country house where reality seems uneven. Featuring a grumpy talking unicorn, naked children who frolic with pigs, an androgynous brother and sister pair who seem to become consumed by the effects of the looming war, and a bedridden old woman who talks to rats in gibberish and feeds from the breasts of other women (no, really), the film is frequently compared to “Alice In Wonderland” in its surreal tone, but as a metaphor for escaping the horrors of reality, it’s amateurish at best. Ostensibly a political allegory — a beautiful innocent fleeing from harsh circumstances to live in a strange, magical, dream-like world — Malle has admitted even he didn’t really know what the picture was about and it shows. Purposely ambiguous, this is one of those rare times when too much is left to the audience to interpret, and often it prompts a simple ‘what the fuck is this?’ reaction rather than the deeper thought and consideration it possibly hopes to inspire. Oblique and confounding, while “Black Moon” isn’t totally without value (it sort of congeals in the brain after it’s over), it isn’t exactly Malle’s finest hour either. In fact, in a wide-ranging oeuvre, this film can be racked up as a rare full-fledged misfire, and an ill-conceived curio that we presume Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist deliberately left off his CV. [C-]
“Au Revoir Les Enfants” (1987)
A heartbreaking tale of innocence lost, Malle’s 17th feature-length drama was his most critically well-received film, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, sweeping the Cesars with seven awards (including Best Film, Best Director) and scoring two Oscar nominations including Best Foreign Language Film at the 60th Academy Awards. But it came at a cost. After the critical roasting of 1985’s “Alamo Bay,” like a wounded animal, Malle retreated to France and immersed himself in his most personal and partly autobiographical film. Centering thematically on guilt, fear and shame, the picture is set in 1940s Nazi-occupied France in a Catholic boarding school that secretly harbors a few Jewish students, thanks to its compassionate headmaster. Anti-semitism is ugly enough, but when discovered through the eyes of naive, innocent children who don’t fully comprehend the evils and injustices around them, it can be truly agonizing to watch. Two boys, a French Catholic and a masquerading Jewish boy, become best friends, but an accidental and painful Judas kiss tears them apart. Meanwhile, moments illustrating the ugliness of which humankind is capable abound, such as the subplot of a hostile cook caught selling food supplies on the black market who betrays the children in a contemptible attempt to save his own skin. In ways an act of atonement, ‘Enfants’ is extremely personal, based on Malle’s own childhood during which he had to watch the Gestapo haul away four of his schoolmates to be deported and eventually gassed at Auschwitz. Perhaps because of Malle’s unique connection to the material, he creates such immediacy that the audience cannot but feel the same helpless impotence that the children do during the film’s conclusion as they wish their friends goodbye. Devastating. moving and yet matter of fact, the picture is ultimately a heart wrenching but unsentimental and eloquent statement on prejudice. [A]
Don’t fret, Malle enthusiasts, this is of course is just a brief taste, but for those not intimately familiar with the filmmaker, let’s remind you once more: 16 films in the Criterion Collection is not too shabby and has to mark Malle as someone worth paying attention to. There’s a huge amount more to discover too, including “Calcutta,” Malle’s celebrated doc about poverty in India, later broadcast as a seven-part TV series called (“Phantom India”) on the BBC, upsetting the Indian government so much they disallowed the BBC from shooting in their country for several years; it was one of those rare times a documentary film played in competition at Cannes. Other feature-length pictures not widely known or seen include the harmless comedy-adventure pic, “Viva Maria” starring Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau, “A Very Private Affair” also with Bardot, and the Jean-Paul Belmondo vehicle “The Thief of Paris.”
As mentioned, “Atlantic City” and “My Dinner With Andre” are considered two Malle classics, the former earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, the latter was heralded by Siskel & Ebert and is perhaps best remembered for defying every screenwriting 101 rule in the book. Starring Jeanne Moreau, and scandalizing American audiences (and evoking censorship laws) with its sexual nature and cunnilingus shots, “The Lovers,” is certainly one of Malle’s best pictures, featuring more lovely black-and-white cinematography by Henri Decae (and some of the most beautiful day for night shots ever). “The Fire Within” would follow, and while it can be unintentionally funny in its now-cliched depiction of European ennui leading to mass depression, the picture (bolstered by its Erik Satie score), is actually a penetrating portrait of a man on the edge of suicide. Another essential picture is “Lacombe, Lucien,” another personal coming of age story set during the German occupation of France and centers on French guilt for collaboration (the teenager becomes part of the German Police but soon falls in love with a Jewish girl). While similarly controversial for its nude scenes featuring a pre-teen Brooke Shields, the brothel-set “Pretty Baby” (1978) is perhaps best remembered for its comely shots of a very young, naked and gorgeous Susan Sarandon, and like most Malle films, the content may be superficially contentious, but the form is always well-handled. The critical and commercial bomb “Crackers” starring Sean Penn and Donald Sutherland remains an elusive picture on DVD (though it was released on Universal‘s bare-bones vault series earlier this year; the filmmaker wasn’t entirely happy with it either, worried he had finally compromised his work in a non-labor of love), his paean to John Ford, only on the sea, “Alamo Bay,” starring Ed Harris also remains AWOL, largely because of its critical roasting, but it did precipitate his most personal work “Au Revoir Les Enfants.” Based off of Chekhov’s play “Uncle Vanya,” “Vanya On 42nd Street” starring Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore would prove a nice closing note to his career; Malle passed away at the age of 63 from cancer. Again, all this is just a taste. At the very least we hope this motivates someone (Criterion?) to finally release “The Silent World” on DVD. We haven’t seen it since childhood and the homage in “The Life Aquatic” just doesn’t cut it. – Rodrigo Perez
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.