NEW WAVE WEEK! Day 2: Louis Malle

Hello everyone and welcome to Day 2 of the Southern Vision French New Wave week, where we examine six filmmakers whose movies were key to the development of French cinema (and thus cinema all over the world) during the 1950s and 60s. Yesterday we looked at the career and films of Jean-Luc Godard. Today, we have a look at another brilliant filmmaker, Louis Malle.

Of the six filmmakers I’m going to be looking at, Malle is ostensibly my favourite. His films are heartwarming (or heartbreaking) examinations of humanity, both the light and dark side of life. Many of his films have been called ‘autobiographical.’ Indeed, there is some truth to that. There is a small, personal bit of Malle in all of his films, and that is what makes them really unique and special.

Though his family rejected his interest in film, it was clear that his career choice was out of their control. After working as an underwater cinematographer, his breakthrough into films sent him flying into the spotlight. His first feature film was the excellent thriller Elevator to the Gallows, which employed Hitchcock-like storytelling techniques and combined them with a distinctly New Wave essence, which consisted of a jazzy soundtrack by Miles Davis and Malle’s own personal taste for thrillers.

His follow-up film caused whispers and shouts, generating controversy in many circles. The Lovers, while not incredibly explicit, was still controversial for its sexuality, inspiring judge Potter Stewart to say the famous line: “I cannot define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” His subsequent films, such as Zazie dans le Metro, A Very Private Affair, The Fire Within, and The Thief of Paris were all minor successes, but it wasn’t until 1971 when Malle struck back with his newest masterpiece, arguably his best film Murmur of the Heart, which generated even more controversy than The Lovers for a scene of inexplicit, implied incest between a mother and son. Despite the controversy, Malle’s latest film had caught attention, and Malle was once again a formidable figure, a force to be reckoned with. His follow-up to Murmur took aim at society again, this time tackling a tricky time in history, the Holocaust. Lacombe, Lucien told the story of an arrogant young man who signs up to be part of the Gestapo, falling in love with a young Jewish girl, but failing to impress her and only humiliating himself. The film can be said to be a precursor to his 1987 Oscar-winning war movie Au Revoir les Enfants. In the years between these two films Malle succeeded in racking up controversy yet again with films such as Pretty Baby, which examined the world from the perspective of a teenage prostitute, and My Dinner with Andre, which has divided opinion between Malle fans as either his best film or one of his worst.

But with Au Revoir in 1987, Malle found a place in the heart of all his viewers, telling the true story of a horrific event which happened to him. The protagonist of the film is a young boy at a German school during the war who discovers one of his classmates is a Jew in hiding. The film looked at the innocence of children, their flaws, weaknesses and strengths, and remains one of his most talked-about and loved films. He only made three films after this before dying in 1995 shortly after his sixty-third birthday. He will be missed.

Malle, I feel, is one of the most human filmmakers. He captured people, both young and naive (Au Revoir les Enfants), thrust into mature situations (Pretty Baby; Murmur of the Heart) and the older ones, either moving quickly into the future confronting the path ahead of them (Atlantic City; The Lovers) or reflecting on their past, both the amazing, beautiful times they’ve had (My Dinner with Andre) or lamenting what might have been (The Fire Within).

While Malle didn’t have a direct influence on the Nouvelle Vague, he nevertheless showed prominence during that time, taking elements from the filmmakers around him and injecting them with humanity based on his own experiences and feelings about life.

That’s Tuesday. Stick around for tomorrow’s post, where I’ll be dissecting the great Alain Resnais, who not only made some amazing movies but is also the mastermind behind what I believe to be the greatest documentary ever made. It’s all coming to Southern Vision tomorrow! In the meantime… what’s your attitude toward Malle? Do you like his films, or loathe them? Have you seen any of his movies? Leave a comment below.

Posted on September 20, 2011, in Movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. I don’t think i’ve seen any of his stuff, but i will try to check out some of his stuff now

    Btw does he use jump cuts as much as Goddard?

    • Hell no, he doesn’t use jump cuts. His camera is very still and composed.

      Definitely check out some of his stuff. As I mentioned earlier in the post he is my favourite French New Wave director.

      • I personally found the jump cuts in breathless annoying, so that is good news for me, I will see what i can find on netflix(and from my dads dvd collection)

        • MURMUR OF THE HEART and AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS are his two best films, but ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS, THE FIRE WITHIN and LACOMBE, LUCIEN are also really, really good. In fact all of his films that I’ve seen were good. You can’t really go wrong with the guy.

  2. I respect Malle’s early groundbreaking work, but I have to confess that the films of his I really love are his trio of late masterpieces: Pretty Baby, Au Revoir Les Enfants, and Atlantic City. The last especially is one of his most compelling films, with of the greatest performances ever by Susan Sarandon (the scene in which she rubs a lemon all over herself remains a classic of eroticism) and Burt Lancaster, who is too often overlooked in the pantheon of all-time greats.

    • The only one of those I haven’t seen is Atlantic City, which I plan on watching very soon. Based on your comment, I’ve just bumped it up much higher on the list.

  3. Hi, Tyler and company:

    Bonjour Tristesse featured the trailer and a review of ‘Elevator To The Gallows’ several weeks ago. One of the first French New Wave and an outstanding, fluidly flowing B&W Noir with a haunting Miles Davis score.

    Thought his much later ‘Pretty Baby’ was a beautiful period piece to watch. Centered on a so-so story wrapped around a very young Brooke Shields. Though Malle’s ‘Atlantic City’ rocked very quietly. With an understated performance from Burt Lancaster opposite Susan Sarandon in a city lost in transition from old to new.

    ‘My Dinner With Andre’ is an eclectic ode to the slowly diing art of conversation While his ‘Crackers’ made little to no sense at all, despite its better than decent cast.

    Much more comfortable with his older offerings than his later works.

    • I too have a preference for his older stuff. Until I saw Murmur of the Heart, Au Revoir was my favourite of his films but now that has changed. I don’t know if you read the blog The Droid You’re Looking For (, but the writer of that blog, John, is a huge fan of Malle, and The Fire Within is his favourite film of all time.

  4. I only recently started watching Louis Malle’s films but they have already made a huge impression on me. So far I’ve seen Elevator to the Gallows, The Lovers, The Fire Within, Zazie dans le Metro, and Black Moon, and what I like the most is how they are all so different. I just picked up Viva Maria, so I will be watching and reviewing that one soon.

    • I haven’t seen as much as I’d like, but all the ones I have seen I’ve enjoyed. I definitely recommend Murmur of the Heart and Au Revoir les Enfants as they are my two favourite Malle films.

  5. I LOVE the way Malle embraces taboo subjects, and makes them human. On the surface, nobody would care about suicide; adultery; prostitution; sympathizing with the Nazis (Lacombe Lucien). But Malle makes it all so human, so organic. It’s breathtaking. There isn’t a topic he was afraid to tackle.

    It always bugs me that when you see top 100 director lists, Malle is an afterthought. He either doesn’t appear or gets a tiny mention at the back. I think his downfall (with regards to acquiring critical acclaim) was that he didn’t do any one thing extraordinarily well again and again; he did lots of things extraordinarily well once. Film noir, French drama, American drama, drama about sexual politics, comedy (yes, comedy! with Zazie dans le Metro), documentaries in two languages (three if you count Phantom India)… He never grew stale. Bergman said he was afraid that people would see him as someone who made “Bergman movies”. Nobody would ever say that Louis Malle made Louis Malle movies because he tackled so very much. There were obvious trends and threads, but the genre never stayed the same.

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