TCM’s recent one night festival of five Louis Malle films gave me the opportunity to revisit two favorites and catch up with a few that I somehow missed in the past. Malle was a director who never liked to repeat himself. Once he explored a subject, he moved on. His work covered drama, suspense, comedy, documentaries and just about every other potential category. One of the original French New Wave, you never knew what he would do next. Malle never shied away from controversial subjects: French collaboration with the Nazi’s during World War II (Lacombe Lucien), child prostitution (Pretty Baby) and Incest (Murmur of the Heart) were all subject matter. What they all had in common was Malle’s artistry for handling these delicate subjects with taste and sensitivity.
Of the five films TCM shown, the most unusual and ultimately exhausting was Zazie das le Métro, It’s an energetic off beat farce. Young Catherine Demongeot is charmingly frisky, filled with youthful anarchistic exuberance. It’s family film for jaded adults. Malle experiments with various cinematic tricks and seems to have had a lot of fun doing it; however, it does wear thin after awhile.
I watched what I consider two brilliant works next. Both controversial, though one much more so than the other. Murmur of the Heart is a sensitive, tender coming of age masterpiece that may be a little to close to the bone for some viewers as a young teen comes to terms with his budding sexuality. Family dynamics, love, incest, the smugness of the upper class are just a few of the director’s targets. The most controversial scenes Malle handles with sensitively and taste. Throughout Malle keeps it lighthearted. Au Revoir les Enfantes at first seems like a simple coming of age story, but Malle shows you how life can completely change in swift moment. A budding friendship between two young boys at a Catholic boarding school during the Nazi occupation of France. One of the boys is Jewish, along with two other boys in the convent. All are being concealed from the Nazi’s by the monks. The secret is exposed leading to an emotional and devastating ending.
The last two films in this festival were both repeat watches for me. I originally saw Elevator to the Gallows on a local TV station when I lived in New York many years ago. It was called Frantic at the time. This was Malle’s first feature length film. An almost noir like thriller filled with misdirections and stylish black and white cinematography. On top that, there is a fantastic soundtrack by Miles Davis. Malle’s 1974 film, the brilliant Lacombe, Lucien is another provocative work. Here the director tells the tale of a not too bright, vicious seventeen year old who, rejected by the French Resistance, joins the Gestapo. He’s cold-hearted and brutal, even to a Jewish family who he has become fond of, especially the young daughter he begins a sexual relationship with. Symbolically, she is named France. The Jewish family is eventually destroyed. Lucien becomes a target of both the Gestapo and the French Resistance. For Malle, it was a very personal film. It cost him though. He met with disapproval from the French audiences for his critical look at the Resistance, a cultural taboo. He soon after moved to the United States where he spent the rest of his short life.
I still have a lot of Louis Malle’s work to catch up on, My Dinner with Andre, The Fire Within, The Thief of Paris, Vanya on 42nd Street and Black Moon to name a few. Thanks to this short festival from TCM I was able to make a small dent.