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Five Louis Malle Films You Should Know

by Rodrigo Perez
June 29, 2011 3:45 AM
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“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. [A]

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 BBC from shooting in their country for several years; it was one of those rare 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, “Atlantic City” and “My Dinner With Andre” are considered two Malle classics, the former earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, the latter was heralded by Siskel & Ebert and is perhaps best remembered for defying every screenwriting 101 rule in the book. Starring Jeanne Moreau, and scandalizing American audiences (and evoking censorship laws) with its sexual nature and cunnilingus shots, “The Lovers,” is certainly one of Malle’s best pictures, featuring more lovely black-and-white cinematography by Henri Decae (and some of the most beautiful day for night shots ever). “The Fire Within” would follow, and 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," another personal coming of age story set during the German occupation of France and centers on French guilt for 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, worried he had finally compromised his work in a non-labor of love), his paean to John Ford, only on the sea, "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 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

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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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