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The Essentials: 5 Great Louis Malle Films

The Essentials: 5 Great Louis Malle Films

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, who was born eighty years ago today, on October 30th, 1932, was a cinematic explorer who turned over many and various stones.

In his long, 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, French collaboration with the Nazis and more, Malle consciously tried never to repeat himself.

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. 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.

We make no claim to this being a definitive retrospective of the director’s work and notable exclusions must be excused under plea of subjectivity: we simply consider our picks to be a good primer and hope this short taster menu of five of our favorites (and we could have gone on and picked the likes of “Lacombe, Lucien” “The Fire Within” and “My Dinner With Andre”) 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.

“The Lovers” (1958)
Jeanne Moreau and Louis Malles would work together four times in their career, and while thei for the moody noir “Elevator To The Gallows” (see above) is their best known collaboration, Moreau is no less striking in the sensual and erotic “The Lovers.” Based on the novel “Point de Lendemain” by Dominique Vivant, Moreau stars as Jeanne Tournier, a bourgeois woman bored with her life and marriage, who essentially rediscovers human love through adultery and an illicit affair with Jean-Marc Bory. Naturally, this controversial sentiment scandalized on release (even more so when the heroine’s eye wanders beyond her new lover) and the frank depiction of sexuality (at least for its time), was seen as obscene (in fact, a landmark obscenity case was overturned by the United States Supreme Court when a theater owner was convicted for screening the movie; the suggestion of cunniligus in one scene is downright sexy). Seductive, luminously shot (with beautifully rendered day-for light sequences) and deeply felt, while the conviction that a good lay can positively change the outlook of one’s life didn’t sit with the puritanical, the picture is still as sharp and compelling today as it must have been to shocked audiences in the late ‘50s. Moreau turned into a genuine star after the picture was released. The film won the Special Jury Prize and was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1958.

“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 a little puzzled (thinking, “Jmm, 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.

“Atlantic City” (1980)
As we speak, Jersey’s Atlantic City has been battered by Hurricane Sandy, but if you’re to believe TV and movies, the damage was done long ago (HBO‘s “Boardwalk Empire” is currently documenting the city’s early years as an organized crime stronghold, for instance). But likely the definitive cinematic depiction of the city is the film that bares its name, Malle’s 1980 film “Atlantic City,” probably the best and most satisfying of his American works. The film has a curious history. Malle had close to free rein from French and Canadian financiers, so long as he was in production on a film before the end of 1979. Near the start of the year, without a project, Malle’s then-girlfriend Susan Sarandon recommended a script by her playwright friend John Guare (“Six Degrees Of Separation,” “House Of Blue Leaves“). The result, rushed into production only a few months later, ended up picking Oscar nominations in the top five categories, and the Golden Lion at Venice. It’s critical reputation has faltered a touch over the past thirty years, but the set up is familiar: the story tracks relationship between Canadian emigre Sally (Sarandon) and her older would-be protector Lou (Burt Lancaster), both residents of a run-down of a crumbling apartment block, who have their lives upended when Sally’s no-good husband (Robert Joy) turns up having stolen drugs from the Philly mob. But Malle shies away from a simple genre tale, creating something far sadder and more beguiling, much of which is down to a phenomenal performance from Lancaster, perhaps reaching the peak of his talents in his twilight years. It’s often said that the best movies about America are made by foreigners, and here Malle stakes his own claim to one of the more definitive pictures about the American Dream.

“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.

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 network from shooting in their country for several years. It’s among the few 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, “My Dinner With Andre” is another Malle classic, heralded by Siskel & Ebert and perhaps best remembered for defying every screenwriting 101 rule in the book (and paid homage to in “The Simpsons” and, more recently, “Community“). “The Fire Within” is another early great one; 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,” again a personal coming of age story set during the German occupation of France that centers on French guilt over 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, and worried he had finally compromised his work on a non-labor of love). His seabound paean to John Ford, “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 soon after 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, Oliver Lyttelton

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