French director Louis Malle (1932-1995) was both a part of and separate from French cinema's new wave. By showing audiences the humanity beneath his characters' moral failings, Malle became one of the most celebrated directors of postwar cinema. His films, in French and English, won acclaim and sparked controversy in his native France and America.
Malle was one of eight children born to a wealthy family in northern France. His mother's family owned a giant sugar concern, and his farther, a former naval officer, ran the family's sugar factory. Wealth provided Malle with private tutors at the family's chateau in Thumeries, France. He spent his summers in Ireland and became fluent in English. Malle was eight when World War II broke out and his family went to Paris. Rebelling against his religious education and bourgeois upbringing, Malle sought refuge in the cinema.
Career Began Undersea
At the end of World War II, Malle studied political science; however, against the wishes of his family, he soon switched to the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques. Malle's 40-year career began with his direction of the 1956 undersea documentary Le Monde du silence, or The Silent World. He had left school to assist undersea explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau aboard his boat, the Calypso. Malle shot footage in 1954 and 1956 to create Silent World. The film captured the Palme d'Or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival and won an Academy Award for best documentary in 1957. "When I started out, it infuriated me that people seemed to think I could never be anything but a dilettante -that I was riding on my family's money. It was not true, " Malle told a writer for French newspaper Le Monde. Having something to prove perhaps inspired Malle to work all the harder.
Sexual Themes Caused Controversy
Malle became famous with his film Les Amants, (also known as The Lovers; 1958) about the sexual awakening of a middle-class woman. With Lovers, Malle broke taboos about on-screen eroticism. An Ohio theater was convicted of obscenity charges for showing the film. The success was followed by Zazie dans le metro (also known as Zazie in the Underground; 1960), a comedy about an eleven year old girl's visit to Paris with her uncle. Other films in French followed, including the documentary Calcutta L'Inde Fantome (also known as Phantom India; 1969), a seven-part television series made from film shot during Malle's six-month sojourn in India.
Lacombe, Lucien (1974) sparked the career of at least one filmmaker: Jodie Foster. "As a young moviegoer and aspiring filmmaker, I left my first Louis Malle film that day and said, 'That's it. That's what I want to do, "' Foster wrote in a tribute to Malle in Premier magazine following his death. Foster's directorial debut, Little Man Tate, was inspired by Malle's Murmur of the Heart (1971). She continued, "I loved the awkwardness, complexity, and pain of the adolescent boy in the film. He wasn't just a cute little prop filled with ironic witticisms. He was suffering and became impossible because he couldn't name his fears."
Murmur of the Heart (also known as Le Souffle Au Coeur; 1971) is the story of an incestuous encounter between a mother and her son while the two are away at a spa for treatment of his heart murmur. Malle countered conventional ideas of morality and incest by having the boy walk away from the tryst emotionally unscathed. "I'm always interested in an aspect of the truth which goes against preconceived ideas, including mine. So I end up working on material that often has something controversial about it, " Malle once said.
Childhood Shaped Work
Many of Malle's films tell their stories through the eyes of children whose perspective is shared by the audience. Malle had three of his own. Malle's first marriage to Anne-Marie Deschodt ended in divorce. It wasn't until Malle was in his mid-40s that he married American actress Candice Bergen in 1980. The couple's daughter, Chloé, was born in 1985 in New York. Malle also fathered two children during the 1970s by actresses Gila von Weitershausen and Alexandra Stewart.
Malle wrote, produced and directed Lacombe, Lucien (1974) nearly 30 years after World War II, and it was inspired, in part, by a pivotal childhood event he would later document in another film set during World War II, Au revoir les enfants. The part of Lucien is played by Pierre Blaise, a woodsman who had never acted before. As is evidenced by casting in Au revoir and Murmur, Malle preferred using child and young actors with little or no experience. "With very few exceptions, professional child actors are so gimmicky, they're like little monkeys, they scare me, " he commented in Horizon magazine.
Pretty Baby (1978), Malle's first American film, is another initiation story with controversial sexual content. American actress Brook Shields, in her first important film role, portrays Violet, a young girl reared in a brothel in the New Orleans' Storyville section. The story was inspired by a 1970 New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition of photographs of prostitutes taken by Ernest James Bellocq around 1912 around New Orleans' infamous red light district. Violet's eyes are also those of the audience to whom the world of her prostitute mother is revealed as Violet moves through the brothel and the streets of Storyville. Pretty Baby was criticized for having no moral point of view, an assessment Malle disagreed with in a 1990 Newsday interview. "This was a true story that fascinated me. There was nothing graphic about the movie."
Atlantic City (1980) garnered Malle an Academy Award nomination for best director in 1982. The film was nominated for best picture and it is another Malle film in which the transformation of characters happens against the backdrop of their changing environment. My Dinner with Andre (1981) was the filmed conversation over dinner between two actors who wrote and improvised their dialogue. Despite its static setting, the film won Malle much acclaim in America. Less successful were subsequent efforts Crackers (1983) and Alamo Bay (1985).
Perhaps Malle's most noteworthy film and certainly his most personal is Au revoir les enfants (also known as Goodbye, Children), released in 1987. This film marked Malle's return to French filmmaking after years in America. Written and directed by Malle, the film is based on a childhood event that haunted the artist all his life, one which took years to commit to film.
Malle was eleven when his Jesuit boarding school sheltered three Jewish boys from the Nazis. Set in the German-occupied France of 1944, the film tells the story of friendship between one of the boys, Jean Bonnet, and Julien Quentin, a wealthy young Catholic boy and the character representing Malle as a child. In the film and in reality, the boys and the school's priest-director were betrayed to the Nazis and arrested by the Gestapo. As the Germans took the four away to be executed in the Nazi death camps, the school director turned to Malle and the other remaining students and said, "Au revoir, les enfants … á bientoÃt" (meaning "Goodbye, children … see you soon").
Malle revealed in an interview for Le Monde, that his friendship with the real Bonnet never existed. "I was the good student, the star pupil. He was bigger, stronger, better than me. I hated him. We did not know that our days together were numbered. Afterward, I could never get rid of the idea that all of us, I and the others, were a little guilty of his death-maybe just because we belonged to the human race. More than 40 years later, I finally wanted to tell Bonnet that I liked him." Au revoir gave Malle's career a boost in the United States where it won larger audiences than those typically attending art house films. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the Prix Louis-Dellec in 1987, and the Felix Award from the European Film Awards in 1988; Au revoir was also nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay and for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for best director.
Among Malle's last work is the production Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), a filming of a rehearsal performance of David Mamet's reworking of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. Stage actors recreate the play in their street clothes, and the film's dialogue is interwoven with that of the play. Malle's other films include Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud (Frantic), 1957; Vie Privee (A Very Private Affair), 1961; Le Feu Follet (The Fire Within), 1963; Viva Maria, 1965; Le Voleur (The Thief of Paris), 1966; Histoires Extraodinaires (Spirits of the Dead), 1967; Humain, Trop Humain, 1973, a documentary; Black Moon, 1975; And the Pursuit of Happiness, 1986, a documentary; Milou en mai (May Fools), 1990; and Damage, 1992.
Malle died November 23, 1995, at 63 of complications from lymphoma; he was buried in France. "For me, his work opened up a glimpse into humanity that I had never seen before, an eye toward forgiveness that no other person, place, or thing had ever presented to me, " actress Jodie Foster wrote in her tribute to Malle.
Further Reading on Louis Malle
Malle, Louis, Malle on Malle, Faber & Faber, 1992.
American Film, July 1990.
Detroit News, November 25, 1995.
Entertainment Weekly, December 8, 1995.
Horizon, January-February, 1988.
Newsday, November 25, 1995.
New York Times, November 25, 1995; December 3, 1995; March 1, 1996.
Premiere, February 1996.
San Francisco Chronicle, November 25, 1995.
Time, January 4, 1993.
Time International, March 22, 1993.
U.S. News & World Report, February 15, 1988.
Variety, November 27, 1995.
Vogue, June 1990.
World Press Review, January 1988.