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Five Louis Malle Films You Should Know

The Playlist By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist June 29, 2011 at 3:45AM

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.
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“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-]

This article is related to: Criterion Collection, Vintage Directors, Feature, DVD Labels, Louis Malle, The Criterion Collection


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