3 Films by Louis Malle
Reviewed by Noah Tsik

Murmur of the Heart (1971)

Produced by Vincent Malle and Claude Nedjar; written and directed by Louis Malle; edited by Suzanne Baron, Solange Leprince, Catherine Snopko; cinematography by Ricardo Aronovich; music by Sidney Bechet, Gaston Frèche, Henri Renaud, Charlie Parker; starring Benoît Ferreux and Leá Massari. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2006. Color. 118 mins.

Lacombe, Lucien (1974)

Produced by Louis Malle and Claude Nedjar; directed by Louis Malle; written by Louis Malle and Patrick Modiano; edited by Suzanne Baron; cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli; music by Charles Gounod and Django Reinhardt; starring Pierre Blaise, Aurore Clément, and Holger Löwenadler. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2006. Color. 138 mins.

Au revoir les enfants (1987)

Written, produced and directed by Louis Malle; edited by Emmanuelle Castro; cinematography by Renato Berta; starring Gaspard Manesse and Raphaël Fejtö. DVD.  Criterion collection, 2006. Color. 101 mins.

If his films weren’t so enigmatic, Louis Malle would probably have the salacious reputation of a Roger Vadim; he’s certainly earned it, with such sex-driven fare as The Lovers (1958) and Damage (1992). But his diverse oeuvre shows a man at odds with any single category—or with the concept of categorization in general. In an interview contained in the special features section of the new Criterion boxed set of three Malle films, the director claims he wanted only to work, and took what came to him, either through the vicissitudes of rights acquisitions or thanks to his own private muse. Some of Malle’s best films are adaptations—Elevator to the Gallows (1957), The Thief (1966), and Zazie dans le métro (1960) all come from novels. He was also successful, however, when he wrote his own screenplays, as in Murmur of the Heart (1971) and Au revoir les enfants (1987). The latter two are included in the abovementioned collection, along with Malle’s study of a young farmhand who collaborated with the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied France—Lacombe, Lucien (1974). Criterion has presented each film, newly restored, in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, added a supplements disc that lacks balance, and also, unfortunately, upheld a maddening tradition of locating trilogies where none exist.

Not long after releasing Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy (a term Fassbinder himself used only casually) and A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman (designating, as if deeply linked, the first three films Bergman made in the 1960’s), Criterion, possibly temporarily, did away with that term and its low-culture, sci-fi associations when it issued the plainly titled 3 Films by Louis Malle.  However, this combination of disparate films as a set is, apart from the advantages of slightly reduced pricing and convenient bulk packaging, still problematic. The set seems to suggest that Malle—in spite of his vast corpus—was largely a director of social maturation films, or that he should be remembered (and can only be fully appreciated) as such. The essays in the accompanying materials by Michael Sragow and Philip Kemp tackle Malle’s own childhood and development as a director. The supplements disc addresses the issue of influence, of Truffaut as Malle’s French “forebear” (in fact Malle is only eight months younger) who similarly explored the development of boys into men. With motifs of growing up depicted on the box itself, the Criterion set participates, no doubt unwittingly, in the consolidation of Malle’s talents to include only the classic bildung film.  A more balanced picture would note that Malle is actually as erotic as Bertolucci, and as anticlerical as Bergman and Buñuel.

Malle is widely regarded, but not adequately enough to be taught at American universities (he isn’t, on the whole). Lacombe, Lucien, a masterwork that stands with no less an indispensable text than Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), is rarely the topic even of film-heavy Holocaust seminars (those I’ve completed have relied on the Ophüls film—and also Vittorio De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970)—to dramatize the noncombat aspects of World War II and the impact of national events on Jews in hiding.) Lacombe is, in fact, a complexly powerful depiction of complicity with evil that raises a number of questions (relevant now) about personal responsibility in a time of national crisis. Today, it’s a film to be appreciated on its own terms, as a singular achievement and one of the greatest of all French films. Here, it’s one of three, and its (relative) absence as a subject on the supplements disc is troubling. What’s more, the essay included with Lacombe is not new—it’s Pauline Kael’s original review from The New Yorker, which happily does praise the film for breaking new ground. But one is left to wonder what erudite film lovers feel about Lacombe now, more than thirty years later.

Murmur of the Heart, among the funniest of Malle’s sex-driven bildung films, depicts anticlerical kids at play as they condemn the nation, and abuse liberal guilt by collecting money for the wounded in Indochina, which they keep for themselves. Recently, the film experienced a revival of sorts as an acknowledged influence of Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005) and it remains controversial, not merely for figuring incest (the protagonist—and Malle stand-in—has sex with his mother, played by the Italian actress Leá Massari). It is also remarkable for the bald eroticism of its teenaged boys’ encounters with each other and with the Christian faith. Three sons of a prosperous gynecologist compare penises and measure to the millimeter, as they remark on each other’s erections. The boys are in fact so aroused that Marc, the middle child, sits on a bed and at once unzips his pants to air out his crotch. And in perhaps the most provocative (though rarely remarked upon) scene, the priest who has denounced masturbation as an abusive act is shown marveling at the young protagonist’s muscles, feeling his way around them, gripping them, to see how much they’ve developed. “Both my hands won’t go around your thighs,” he bets, and they won’t. He’s blushing all the while.

But, on the whole, while the notoriety of Murmur, with its clamorous sex-obsessed teens, has faded, Au revoir les enfants, touching on the subject of Jews in hiding, hasn’t—probably because it seems so totally accessible. Its straightforward narrative and moral certainty exist in exact opposition to the cryptic ambiguity of Lacombe, Lucien and Murmur of the Heart’s scandalous love scene. Cinephiles commonly accept it as Malle’s own bildungsroman (a designation the director himself had welcomed, even encouraged). The prologue offers a classic scenario of domineering mother and spoiled son—though not in the comic terms of Murmur of the Heart.  Here, the moment is bracing and fraught with unpleasantly gendered social and psychological overtones. The woman warns the child not to cry, even as she herself is on the brink of weeping. After all, boys don’t cry, and besides, what would his father think? Young Julien’s only response is to say, “I don’t give a damn about Dad, and I hate you.” And this mother who speaks of manly propriety admits she’d like to dress him up in pretty clothes and leaves a lurid-red lipstick kiss across his pale, narrow forehead. It is perhaps the most subtle—and stringent—depiction of bourgeois hypocrisy in all of Malle, in part for broaching the thematic concept of drag that persists throughout a number of his films, especially in the films in the Criterion boxed set, albeit not in the same way.

Murmur distinguishes itself by using crossdressing to take pleasure in upsetting gender conventions. Marc, who pisses in his mother’s sink (against the woman’s wishes), dresses in drag to similarly pique her; if she doesn’t see him, he will at least offend his sexually panicked brothers, with whom he shares a room. There are no such evocations of the carnivalesque in Au revoir les enfants to depict a Jewish boy who assumes a Gentile disguise. His (assumed) name is Jean Bonnet, and when the film begins he is just arriving, along with the ill-mannered Julien Quentin, at a residential prep school sited on the grasses of a rural monastery in France. Entering the hall of beds, he meets Julien, who warns him, “Mess with me and you’ll be sorry.” As the spoiled boy continues to abuse him, tossing a copy of Sherlock Holmes his way, Jean is looking in a different direction—at what, we can’t yet see. It is only when Julien leaves the frame—and the dorm master says, “Vacation’s over”—that the camera pans to the right and rises, revealing the object of Jean’s quiet contemplation: an enormous model of the Virgin Mary, arms outstretched to the boys below. Here conventional gender definitions are preserved.

That Jean is a Jew explains his nervous quietude, and also his curiosity. He is entering the Gentile world, and attempting to pass as Catholic. At this school, he will be educated to recognize the ways in which parochial schooling gets quite literally into the veins of the boys around him: Julien abuses himself, drawing blood with the sharp end of a pin—castigates his own body, as if he were Jesus. At communion, the children fast, and one corpulent kid, pale and anemic, faints at sermon, unable to reconcile his physical and spiritual needs. At recess, in the schoolyard, the older boys portray avenging Christians and Muslim infidels, the one group having to combat the other, while standing precariously on stilts. The timely message is clear: a man is never on sure footing, using religious conviction as his guide.

The film offers a seemingly inverted depiction of the wartime complicity displayed in Lacombe, Lucien.  The sheltering of innocent Jews by a compassionate Catholic priest (based on the historical Père Jacques, who was caught and died in a concentration camp) has its own distasteful qualities, however, for Louis Malle saw beneath the humanism of protecting refugees the horror of Jews like Jean Bonnet being taught, and forced to internalize, the Christian faith. And this world of fresh children’s faces, so seemingly incorruptible, is not immune to the threat of eroticism from within—and scandalously, from without. Malle’s major contribution to the male bildung narrative was to consciously sexualize it. Midway through the film, the schoolboys visit a public bath and encounter older German boys engaging in a form of horseplay the point of which seems to be to connect their naked male bodies.  The impossibly handsome Germans even stroke the smooth white cheeks of Jean, admiring him, while at the same time threatening, with the persistence of their gestures, his pallid Jewish otherness.

The supplements disc seems to privilege Au revoir, les enfants, and that is understandable: Candice Bergen, married to the director for fifteen years, turns up in a filmed interview and describes visiting Malle on the set of the film, in France, and speaks of how much it meant to him, to have been able to make it.  A short comedy by Chaplin—The Immigrant—unnecessarily pads the extras. The small pleasures of the rest of the disc come in short takes: especially footage of a French-speaking Faye Dunaway presenting Malle with the 1987 César Award for Best Film, Bergen in tears in the audience, and Malle’s humble face. Of course, the package is essential not for the supplements but for the films themselves. The transfers are sharp and gorgeous yet not quite flawless. There are lingering scratches on the prints of both Lacombe and Au revoir, but only a few. We are lucky to have such a lovingly restored print of the latter film, with its exquisite open-air cinematography, boy’s tidy faces, and breath that colors the frosty air. What one takes away from Au revoir, more so than from Murmur, is the promise one finds in unlined young faces. The film takes place and was shot in the dead of winter; the pale cheeks of the French schoolboys are prone to blush, and are unforgettable. Malle’s own face, depicted on the Criterion box, in an old photograph from 1944, shows a similar hue even in black and white—and dimples, too.

 But where are the actors’ profiles we so often get from Criterion, that are rich in biographical detail? Even token biographies are missing here, and they would have added much to the supplements.  For example, Pierre Blaise, who plays Lucien, died in a car accident at the age of twenty-three, shortly after rumors surfaced that he was dating Brigitte Bardot. Leá Massari, the girl gone missing in Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), represents another kind of missed opportunity. A real treat—and coup—would have been the addition of an audio commentary by Massari on the disc of Murmur.