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Five Louis Malle Films You Should Know

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

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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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