Generous Criterion Set Challenges Myths of Malle

If there were any justice in the movies, we still wouldn’t have to make the case for Louis Malle as a great filmmaker instead of one who was merely provocative. It’s ironic that perhaps the worldliest filmmaker since Max Ophuls was, during his lifetime, often judged by petty parochialisms.

In his early films, Malle, a contemporary of the French New Wave directors, showed a proficiency for the sort of commerciality they disdained. The distrust of his professionalism was compounded by the shibboleth that a filmmaker who, like Malle, couldn’t be pinned down in terms of style or subject was ipso facto shallow. And in the second half of Malle’s career, his fellow Frenchmen resented him for working in the U.S.

Malle died in 1995 at the much-too-young age of 63, and many of his films have been unavailable on DVD. This new Criterion box, 3 Films of Louis Malle, as well as the company’s April release of Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, finally makes some of his most important films available for home viewing.

The films in this new collection are all coming-of-age stories, a theme Malle returned to again and again. Two of them revolve around war. The 1974 Lacombe, Lucien, the story of a French peasant boy who goes to work for the local Gestapo during the waning days of the occupation, more resembles what Hannah Arendt wrote on the banality of evil than the way movies had previously discussed the subject.

It must have taken enormous confidence for Malle to make a film this open-ended. For the first time, he was bringing the spirit of inquiry that had characterized his documentary Phantom India to a dramatic film. Lacombe, Lucien gives the impression that the director is standing by the camera, watching as we’re watching, unsure what will be revealed. Malle certainly didn’t know what to expect of Pierre Blaise, the French farm boy who had never acted before, whom he cast as Lucien. Blaise’s face is open, guileless yet opaque; the startling thing about the moment Lucien dons a pair of sunglasses is that it creates almost no change in him. He’s already closed off from us.

Lucien is a diabolic innocent, utterly without conscience. Malle cuts from Lucien tenderly stroking the hide of a dead horse to his happily shooting rabbits, and it’s clear he makes no connection between violence and pain. He acts solely on mysterious impulse, not conviction. Even Lucien’s work for the Gestapo comes about by chance. What attracts him is not Nazi ideology, which he is nonetheless happy to parrot, but belonging to something.

Malle is scrupulous, though, about not enlarging Lucien’s motives beyond that. It’s as if he understood that giving credence to the psychobabble about the inferiority that informed Nazism is to commit the morally and intellectually repugnant act of rendering the irrational comprehensible.

Which is why Malle’s 1987 Au Revoir les Enfants feels like such a betrayal of the previous film’s integrity. Malle called this the most personal of his movies. But because it’s the closest he came to the conventional morality he always found so limiting, it feels his most impersonal. In 1944, as a 12-year-old student at a Catholic boarding school, Malle had seen the Gestapo arrest a Jewish student hiding under an assumed name and the headmaster priest. Both later died in the camps. In this reimagining, Malle’s stand-in (Gaspard Manesse) befriends the Jewish student (Raphael Fejtö) and then unintentionally betrays him.

Malle’s self-portrait of his younger self here is troubling—aggrandized for the purpose of self-flagellation (as if a 12-year-old boy could have stood up to the Gestapo). And the character of Joseph, the picked-upon kitchen boy who joins the Gestapo, falls back on all the reductive clichés that Malle’s portrayal of Lucien avoided.

If Lacombe, Lucien stands as an intellectual and moral rejoinder to the simplifications of Au Revoir les Enfants, then the high spirits of the third film in this collection, the 1971 Murmur of the Heart, shows up the remote and joyless prestige filmmaking of Au Revoir.

Set in 1954, as French rule in Indochina was collapsing, Murmur of the Heart is perhaps the most sophisticated act of effrontery the movies have given us. It’s the story of 14-year-old Laurent (Benoît Ferreux), the precocious youngest son of a prosperous family, budding intellectual and jazz enthusiast, and his soulmate, his Italian mother Clara (the radiant Lea Massari). Clara tries to keep up a front of bourgeois propriety for the sake of Laurent and his two older brothers, but the outsider in her, the Italian refugee who was barefoot when she met her gynecologist husband (Daniel Gelín), feels a kinship with their pranks against that propriety.

Murmur of the Heart came out at a time when American movies were sucking up to youth’s romantic view of itself as rebellious and free of society’s hypocrisy. Malle’s movie is set a generation earlier, yet it understands the hypocrisy of the kids whose playacting at rebellion (as opposed to the ones who put themselves on the line for their convictions) has the cushion of upper-middle-class comfort beneath it. Here, though, it’s a happy hypocrisy.

Malle doesn’t despise Laurent and his brothers because he knows that, in time, they’ll settle down to the sort of lives they are tweaking. Malle knew that spiritual torment over material comfort was a rich man’s privilege. (It was the false torment that bedeviled Bertolucci for years.) None of the good bourgeois snobbery Laurent and his brothers indulge in prevents them from feeling real affection for each other.

Most of the attention paid Murmur was focused on the finale of the film, when, following a drunken Bastille Day celebration, Clara and Laurent fall into bed together and make love. For Malle, this scene is the apotheosis of a career that broke taboos and conventions and assumptions about human behavior. It’s done with such casual impudence that you’re too charmed and moved to be shocked—which is exactly when the shock of what you’re being charmed by hits you. There are few films as joyous as Murmur of the Heart. Available again in a time far more explicit but far less sophisticated than when it first appeared, it stands ready to upend a whole new set of hypocrisies and sensitivities. Let’s hope those holding them have a sense of humor.

Mediated Men

Our leaders are dishonest, the news is unethical, TV is clogged with sensationalism—welcome to 1976! Warner Brothers recently rolled out two-disc editions of Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men and Sidney Lumet’s Network and Dog Day Afternoon, accompanied by timely promotional campaigns like “The Government Is Lying.” Now, taking the bid for relevance a step further, Warner Brothers has collected them all together in Controversial Classics Volume 2: The Power of Media.

Socially engaged and cinematically reserved, Pakula and Lumet were almost uniquely qualified to provide deadpan documents of society gone awry. Their brand of pessimism included an aloofness that contributed to the gravity of their dystopian visions. With spare soundtracks, a dearth of close-ups and charisma-challenged protagonists, there’s little sense of persuasion going on: It feels like the truth.

In All the President’s Men, Pakula places Washington, D.C., before the unblinking, judgmental camerawork of Gordon Willis, lending a sinister patina to the mechanisms of bureaucracy. The investigation into the Watergate break-in by Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) unfolds as a solemn detective procedural, with long takes and long shots accentuating the needle-in-the-haystack frustration of the reporters. The perverse lesson never learned by Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass—that investigation is the work of banality—is central to Pakula’s story. Where the journalist hero of Pakula’s previous film, The Parallax View, overcame barroom brawls, shootouts and car crashes only to fall prey to a shadowy organization, it’s Woodward and Bernstein’s dull shoe leather that finally prevails—not just over the Nixon administration, but over the entity whose name is cursed most passionately: The New York Times. Still, there remains a cool, stoic terror that lingers longer than the ostensibly happy ending: Richard Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell’s cameos are limited to their televisual apparitions, a reminder that the corruption they represent exists in the ether. The invisible villains are too busy to be bothered with personal appearances anyway.

In Network’s nihilistic post-Watergate vision, multinational corporations have swallowed everything else—government presence is limited to a mention of Gerald Ford’s status as a shooting survivor. The story of UBS, a fictional fourth network that competes with NBC, CBS and ABC, Network arrived almost exactly 10 years before a real fourth network, Fox, began a crass ascent that would soon rival UBS for fairness and balance. What Fox still doesn’t have is a raconteur like Howard Beale (Peter Finch), who upon learning of his impending firing announces that he will kill himself on the air, and sends executives Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) and Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) scrambling to capitalize on the ratings frenzy. “There are no nations, there are no peoples,” UBS’s owner (Ned Beatty) explains in a speech that’s Samuel Huntington meets Monty Python. “It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet.”

The applauding crowds, not unlike those that Lumet wrangled in Dog Day Afternoon, are darkly comic in their anonymous groupthink: Even when they shout that they’re “mad as hell,” they’re smiling, happy to be part of a trend.

But if these movies as a whole tell us anything, it may be that the media is no place for a person to find communion. “Go to yourselves, because that’s the only place you’re ever going to find any real truth,” preaches Howard Beale, as if the lonely protagonists of the Me Decade weren’t already trapped inside themselves. Al Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day has left his overbearing wife for a Bellevue-registered drama queen who’s ready to leave him anyway. Bob Woodward, with no time for a girlfriend (or, apparently, to clean his apartment), tolerates Carl Bernstein but betrays no warm feeling toward him. Howard Beale’s a widower with no place to live, while his best friend Max (William Holden) directs his romantic energies toward a woman who needs to talk about ratings to have an orgasm.

It should come as no surprise that these prestigious films lost in the Best Picture categories to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (in 1976) and Rocky (in 1977), each a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. During this year’s Oscar telecast, host Jon Stewart noted that two of this year’s Best Picture nominees, Good Night, and Good Luck and Capote, were “about determined journalists defying obstacles in a relentless pursuit of the truth. Needless to say, both are period pieces.” Is it also needless to say that they were both about lonely men?

—Sean Howe