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The Essentials: 5 Great Louis Malle Films

Features
by The Playlist Staff
October 30, 2012 1:22 PM
5 Comments
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Louis Malle

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, who was born eighty years ago today, on October 30th, 1932, was a cinematic explorer who turned over many and various stones.

In his long, 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, French collaboration with the Nazis and more, Malle consciously tried never to repeat himself.

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. 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.

We make no claim to this being a definitive retrospective of the director’s work and notable exclusions must be excused under plea of subjectivity: we simply consider our picks to be a good primer and hope this short taster menu of five of our favorites (and we could have gone on and picked the likes of "Lacombe, Lucien" "The Fire Within" and "My Dinner With Andre") will whet your appetite for the cinematic banquet that awaits you, should you explore Malle further.

Elevator To The gallows

“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.

The Lovers
“The Lovers” (1958)
Jeanne Moreau and Louis Malles would work together four times in their career, and while thei for the moody noir “Elevator To The Gallows” (see above) is their best known collaboration, Moreau is no less striking in the sensual and erotic “The Lovers.” Based on the novel “Point de Lendemain” by Dominique Vivant, Moreau stars as Jeanne Tournier, a bourgeois woman bored with her life and marriage, who essentially rediscovers human love through adultery and an illicit affair with Jean-Marc Bory. Naturally, this controversial sentiment scandalized on release (even more so when the heroine’s eye wanders beyond her new lover) and the frank depiction of sexuality (at least for its time), was seen as obscene (in fact, a landmark obscenity case was overturned by the United States Supreme Court when a theater owner was convicted for screening the movie; the suggestion of cunniligus in one scene is downright sexy). Seductive, luminously shot (with beautifully rendered day-for light sequences) and deeply felt, while the conviction that a good lay can positively change the outlook of one’s life didn’t sit with the puritanical, the picture is still as sharp and compelling today as it must have been to shocked audiences in the late ‘50s. Moreau turned into a genuine star after the picture was released. The film won the Special Jury Prize and was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1958.

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5 Comments

  • mortal | October 31, 2012 12:16 PMReply

    if you live in the uk or europe in general, i can highly recommend the two Louis Malle collections from Optimum releasing. they're super cheap (12-14£ at zavvi.com) and have a great selection of movies (from les amants to le feu follet, zazie dans le metro, black moon etc.) you'll get 9 Malle movies (great picture quality too) for just a little more then 20£.

    feu follet is my favorite by far (so far, there are still some that i haven't seen). zazie is crazy like hell and i love it to death for it.

  • mortal | October 31, 2012 12:19 PM

    regarding the silent world: amazon.co.uk has a cousteau blu-ray collection that's quite cheap.

  • Starlite Auto Theatre | October 31, 2012 11:05 AMReply

    One of the greatest directors never to win an Academy Award. "Lacombe, Lucien" should be mentioned in depth as one of his greatest works.

  • cosmo vitelli | October 31, 2012 1:51 AMReply

    One of the most inspiring directors. Glad to see the shout-out to Phantom India, maybe the most fascinating thing he's ever done. Almost all of his docs are worth checking out. Black Moon is worthwhile for its strangeness and May Fools is so severely underrated, I'm still expecting a Criterion release of that late-period gem at some point.

  • concerned citizen kane | October 30, 2012 1:51 PMReply

    why no love for zazie dans le metro?

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