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Five Louis Malle Films You Should Know

by Rodrigo Perez
June 29, 2011 3:45 AM
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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]

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  • Larry | July 6, 2011 10:12 AMReply

    "The Silent World" has been available on DVD in France since last year and in the UK since May.

  • Felonious Punk | July 6, 2011 7:45 AMReply

    I think "Damage" is a good rival against "My Dinner with Andre" for his best work.

  • John | July 6, 2011 1:56 AMReply

    My own "essential Malle" list, when people ask me, includes three of these five. I have yet to see Black Moon or Zazie Dans Le Metro (I desperately need to rectify this situation), but your other three are the ones I mention. The other two are "The Fire Within"- I consider it his deeply personal masterpiece- and his wonderful documentary, "God's Country".

    The irony here is that I love Malle- he's one of my two or three very favorites- but I loathed the film that he's best known for, "My Dinner with André".

    RE: Godard vs. Malle, Godard has 11 films in the Criterion Collection, so it's not as if they're completely neglecting him. Seven of the 16 Malle films are sold as part of a single set- The Documentaries of Louis Malle. In short, you can make 10 Malle purchases and 11 Godard purchases. And who knows what the rights issues may or may not be regarding Godard's films. Moreover, Malle himself was a New Waver, if only subtly. While not technically an author for Cahiers du Cinema, he employed many of the same techniques that fit the New Wave aesthetic, and worked in the same era and country of origin.

  • Michael | July 5, 2011 2:49 AMReply

    Cool, no comments. And yet Transformers stimulates rounds and rounds of circuitous debate that never goes anywhere. Is cinephilia really experiencing a revival? Yes, and no. The people who care are better enabled to than ever. The intellectually lazy, however, gloss over this list on the way to the next Thor 2 gossip piece (not your fault, Playlist, though certainly indicative of your reader base).

    Anyhow, I can't contribute in any particularly meaningful way either as I've seen no Malle films, to my great shame. I've been reading a lot about him in the weeks since Black Moon and Zazie were announced as Criterions, and he definitely seems like my kind of guy. Thank you for the primer, and once more, keep up the good work on things like this. The Internet is such an important tool for sharing information and, perhaps more importantly, passion. So keep doing this and hopefully a few people will pay attention in between the casting roundups and synopses leaks.

    I really do think Criterion picks favorites, by the way. Malle is a perfect example (with Roeg also being a good guess). I think most cinephiles would rank Godard over Malle, yet which of the two has a more extensively covered filmography? I mean, at least someone is putting out some French New Wave, but as with any tastemaker with a monopoly on the public conscience, it's a little disconcerting when they have that kind of authority. The cinephile world at large has forgotten Godard after the 60s (deservedly or not isn't part of the debate here), yet Malle lives on just because Criterion says so. Again, worse things have happened in the world of movies, but hopefully this won't reach any kind of tragic peak in the near future. I'd hate for a Criterion backlask, much less a deserved one.

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