Thursday, September 29, 2011

Remastering the Film: Louis Malle

Having for various reasons conspicuously passed over some of the big names of the nouvelle vague on my list of Masters of Film, I hope that it doesn't appear spiteful of me to put Louis Malle in place of them. He was too often associated in people's minds with the movement, despite having nothing to do with Cahiers du Cinéma. He learned from them, as everyone did, but he would eventually surpass their accomplishments - even though he made the Big Mistake (answering the call of Hollywood) that Truffaut and Chabrol were smart enough to resist.

Malle began in documentary film, co-directing Le Monde du Silence, with Jacques Cousteau in 1956. It won a Palm d'or at Cannes. His first fiction film was Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud (1958), known as Lift to the Scaffold in Britain and Elevator to the Gallows in the States. Fantastically cool (Malle persuaded Miles Davis to do the music), Vernon Young called it an improvement on Hitchcock. I call it "definitive".

Elevator starred Jeanne Moreau. Malle cast her again in his next film, The Lovers (1958), a huge hit in France and abroad, due to its Gallic honesty about sex. Moreau was never more alluring. Feeling the tide of the New Wave, Malle next tried his hand at a Marienbad-like experimental film, Zazie in the Metro (1960), based on the Raymond Queneau novel. It was spirited but ultimately unsatisfying. Malle tried to recoup some of the commercial success and notoriety (in the States) of The Lovers with A Very Private Affair (1962) (simply Vie privée in French), starring Brigitte Bardot.

Just when he seemed to have gone commercial, out of nowhere Malle made his masterpiece, Le Feu Follet (1963)(1). Though its subject was forbidding, the film's beauty is indisputable. Maurice Ronet's performance as a man who's run out of time was unsurpassed. For the next five years, Malle seemed to enjoy being a successful professional director (evidently something that Truffaut enjoyed tremendously - the the detriment of his art) without having much to say. In 1968 he took off for India with a small crew and returned with more than thirty hours of film. He managed to reduce it to a feature film released the following year, Calcutta. If the film seems rather lost, it certainly reflected Malle's reaction to the phantasmagoria he found in India. More footage was put together and shown on British TV in seven episodes as Phantom India (1969). The Indian government objected to Malle's completely open-eyed look at their country, and banned the BBC from filming there for several years.

Malle's next feature film was a return to his stride. Le Souffle au Coeur (1971) was known - slightly inaccurately - as Murmur of the Heart in the States. Set in Dijon in 1954, the film has everything going for it, including the return of Lea Massari, the girl who disappeared in Antonioni's L'Avventura. The film gets more than a little flippant, however, when it suggests that a boy's sex with his mother is no big deal ("It'll be our secret. I'll remember it without remorse, tenderly. Promise you'll do the same."). And the actor at the center of the film, Benoît Ferreux, is not very good. The soundtrack, however, is all Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet.

Malle had helped produced the Marcel Ophuls documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1968), and his fiction film, Lacombe Lucien is a beautiful counterpart to it. It examines some of the confusion and collusion of the French during the occupation. Pauline Kael used Hannah Arendt's line about the "banality of evil" to describe the film's titular character. Malle later wondered at his choice for the lead, Pierre Blaise, who became a star but was killed in a car accident a the following year. The film is an beautiful tribute to him and it was Malle's last great film.

After a few documentaries (Human, Too Human, 1974, stands out in my memory, suggesting that industrial robotics are extensions of our bodies), and a forgettable foray into surrealism, Black Moon (1975), Malle departed France for Hollywood in 1975. The move was not unlike those of many other artists, and the results were the same. Some of his American films were successful, but none of them are the equal of Le Feu Follet or Lacombe Lucien. In fact, it is often hard to believe that the puerile Pretty Baby or Atlantic City were the product of the same intelligence that gave us Elevator to the Gallows or Calcutta. Not even a return to France in the late '80s (Au Revoir les Enfants and Milou en Mai) could resuscitate Malle's deceased muse. Malle told interviewers that he left France because he didn't want to end up like Truffaut, who made Day for Night in 1973, a film about the making of a film. What Malle failed to notice was that his last film, Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) is a film about the rehearsal of a play.

(1) Based on the novel by Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, the title is an idiomatic term that corresponds to the English "will-o-the-wisp".

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