Written by: John White on May 21st, 2006
Theatrical Release Dates: France, 1971/1974/1987
Director: Louis Malle
Cast: Gaspard Manesse,Raphael Fejtö, Pierre Blaise, Aurore Clément, Holger Löwenadler, Lea Massari, Benoît Ferreux, Daniel Gélin, Michael Lonsdale
DVD set released: 28th March 2006
Approximate running time: 118/138/104 mins
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
DVD Release: Criterion
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $79.99
Overview: Criterion have restored 3 of Louis Malle’s finest films and presented them in a sturdy box set with a supplements disc. The three films reflect Malle’s maturation as a director away from the technical and eclectic early films, which I reviewed here in the Louis Malle Collection, to a more personal kind of film making. The three films were made after Malle spent time in India making a documentary series as a break from feature films. When Malle returned he made La Souffle Au Coeur, a film driven by memories from his own childhood. He later made Lacombe, Lucien as an attempt to understand why people collaborated with the Nazis. In 1978 Malle traveled to the US and worked there until 1986 making films like Atlantic City, Pretty Baby and My Dinner With Andre. After receiving poor reviews for his 1985 film Alamo Bay, Malle decided to return to France to make another film based on a childhood memory, Au Revoir les Enfants. Malle died in 1995.
La Souffle au Coeur (Murmur of the Heart): In the late 1950’s Laurent is almost 15 years old and is the youngest son to a wealthy gynecologist and his young Italian wife. Laurent is consistently top of his class, he loves Charlie Parker, and he is starting to realize what goes on in the greater world. His Jesuit confessor talks to him about sins of the flesh whilst measuring Laurent’s thighs with his hands, his mother is clearly having an affair and his brothers take him to a brothel for his first sexual experience. When Laurent develops a heart murmur he is prescribed total rest followed by a stay at a health spa. His mother accompanies him and they end up sharing a room. At the spa he meets girls, patriot idiots and his mum leaves him for days to see her lover. When his mother returns their closeness, his maturity and a drunken night leads to sex. Neither regret it and Laurent uses the experience to seduce the girls he has met.
Unlike Laurent, Malle grew up in the mid 40’s and not the time of French failure in Indochina which is the backdrop here. However a lot of the other elements of this tale are similar to Malle’s life – the privileged upbringing, the Jesuit teaching, the heart murmur, the love of Jazz and the closeness to his mother. Reading a synopsis it may seem that the film is quite heavy in tone but nothing could be further from the truth. Murmur is a romp through puberty with gags aplenty.
Like many of Malle’s films the movie was controversial. The incest between Mother and Son is presented uncondemned and with great understanding, in fact it is the spur for Laurent to make love to more girls and be less shy. This will present problems for some viewers but the point of this tale is emphasizing Laurent’s maturity and his mother’s youth. That they become close is understandable as he is witty and generous – any jealousy he may feel towards her lover is lost when she returns to the spa because she is so upset at the breakup. The mother plays with her sons and is far less strict than her husband.
Laurent’s maturity is eventually accepted by the whole family when he returns to his room at the spa to find they have all arrived after he spent the night with a girl. His father’s disapproval turns to laughter and Laurent is accepted as an adult. Murmur of the Heart is a fine film and a deliberately rebellious one from Malle, taking on the taboo of incest and his anti-clerical hatred. It is witty, it is challenging and it is essential to see to understand one of Malle’s many changes of direction.
Lacombe, Lucien: Lucien is a young man working at the local nursing home mopping floors in 1944 occupied France. When Lucien returns to his mother on a break he discovers that another family have taken over his family cottage and his mother is having an affair with the farmer she works for. His brother has been arrested for work with the resistance and he presents himself to a local schoolteacher he knows works for them and asks to join. The teacher is wary of Lucien and turns him down. Lucien makes his way back to his crappy job in a local village but a puncture makes him late and he witnesses a party after curfew at the Gestapo’s HQ. Taken in by them and befriended he gives up the name of the teacher. Lucien becomes a member of the police and enjoys the power this brings him. He imposes himself upon a Jewish family and starts an affair with the daughter, he terrorizes them to the point the father is deported. As it becomes clear the Germans are losing the war, Lucien is the only collaborator left alive in the Gestapo and he is asked to herd the Jewish family to be taken away. After a fight with a German soldier, Lucien escapes with the family to the countryside where he forages for them and rekindles his affair with the daughter.
Lacombe, Lucien is a tale of how Lucien finds a family and a job that suits him away from the country life he is more suited to. As the Jewish father says to him after he has seduced his daughter “Somehow, I can’t bring myself to totally despise you”. That Lucien becomes a collaborator, a murderer and an informer is because he can’t belong with his family anymore. His first instinct is to join the resistance but reasonably they don’t believe he is reliable or committed. Lucien is rejected by his family, refused by the resistance and led by a puncture to the arms of the accepting Gestapo.
Lucien is a loser. The country life which he is ideal for can no longer be his and he finds acceptance in a losing cause which gives him brief power. He enjoys that he can inspire fear, get revenge and force people to respect him. He has no idea of what he is doing to others and mixes up a desire for a new home with his tyranny. Lucien only becomes settled and happy when he is returned to the country life using his survivalist skills to feed and keep his new family safe. The film ends with the narration that he was finally executed for his collaboration.
The film has a wonderful, non-judgmental tone and is very good on the petty concerns which promote hate. There are no one dimensional villains and there is no attempt to minimize the cruelty shown here, but it rings horribly true. Lacombe, Lucien upset a lot of people in France with it’s refusal to condemn and take part in the purge and collective amnesia that mark a lot of the response to the occupation. It references Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu and is a tremendous piece of work.
Lots of directors have tried to understand why people do evil things, but in Lacombe, Lucien is more successful than any other film I can remember in showing the dangers of being a fish out of water. Lacombe, Lucien shows a young man finding a place for his skills that he should never have found. Lucien dies as both a traitor and an unaware young man.
Au Revoir Les Enfants: Julien Quentin is at boarding school in occupied France. He is bright and from a good family. When four new pupils arrive he takes a dislike to Jean Bonnet who sleeps in the bed next to him. Father Jean asks him to befriend Bonnet but it is only through getting lost together on a treasure hunt that the two boys become friends. Julien starts to notice things that are different about Jean and tests him by offering him pork to eat. When the kitchen boy, Joseph, is sacked for black market trading and thrown out by the monks the class finds itself visited by the Gestapo looking for a Jean Kippelstein. As the four new boys are led away with the arrested Father Jean by the Gestapo the school choruses “Goodbye my father”.
Louis Malle speaks the final words of Au Revoir Les Enfants saying that the memory of that day where the Jewish pupils and Father Jean were arrested has always stayed with him. This 1987 film marked a subject Malle had toyed with filming all his career and reflects a continuation of his concern for childhood and taking the right path. Unlike the two other films in this box set, Malle does not seek to challenge authority or taboos but to show evil. It differs in other ways with the portrayal of the eminently heroic Father Jean, a far cry from the repressed priests of much of Malle’s work.
Au Revoir Les Enfants is beautifully shot, written and acted. Malle uses a largely unknown cast much as his hero Robert Bresson did, but does not sacrifice emotional punch with this decision. It has echoes of earlier films with the character of Joseph recalling Lucien Lacombe, a similar misbegotten young man pushed into the arms of evil by circumstance and Julien sharing a warmth with his mother much as Laurent in Murmur of the Heart. The film looks at childhood and is very good on how friendship develops through games, cruelty and shared experience. It is very good on the interest in the forbidden delights of the adult world but the boys here are a little younger and a little more innocent.
There is also a wonderful scene with the boys being encouraged to watch the Chaplin short “The Immigrant”. It is good to see Malle showing cinema much as he tries to use it – to understand, to enlighten and to make the world a more tolerant place. Au Revoir Les Enfants is a masterpiece, a great film about childhood and the dangers of taking a wrong turn. It celebrates those who protect and preach tolerance and is a wonderful summary of everything Malle tried to do in film.
The three films are presented on three individual discs with an extra disc of supplements. All three films are presented anamorphically and have restoration work done on them. The naturalistic colours of each film are presented well and the contrast levels are fine. There are very rare hairs on the prints but mostly these are impeccable transfers – sharp, well defined and beautiful. The audio is mono throughout the feature films and of excellent quality. The English subtitles are excellent throughout. Each of the films comes with quite detailed inserts containing essays on each film as well as the theatrical trailers.
The supplements disc is a joy. It includes a 30 minute interview with critic Pierre Billard whose insight into Malle’s work and his rebelliousness is very enlightening, and a 15 minute interview with Malle’s widow, actress Candice Bergen. There are interviews and pieces from French TV on the making of the two earlier films in this set and three audio interviews with Malle. The supplements also include a piece on the character of Joseph from Au Revoir Les Enfants and the Chaplin short mentioned above.
Reviewing this set and the R2 box set has given me a passion for Malle’s films. Whilst the earlier films are impeccably well made, eccentrically diverse and very enjoyable these three films are of a higher order. Tremendously insightful of human beings, fearless in seeking truth and rebellious in their intent this box set includes three films of excellent quality, two of these are to my mind classics. It has been 15 years since I last saw them and thanks to this brilliant package it will never be so long again.
For more information about the films of Louis Malle and other titles released by Criterion visit their website.