Written by: John White on May 5th, 2006
Theatrical Release Dates: France, 1958/1958/1960/1963
Director: Louis Malle
Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Phillipe Noiret, Yves Montand, Maurice Ronet, Jean-Marc Bory
DVD released: June 26th, 2006
Approximate running time: 87/87/89/105 mins
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen/ 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen/ 1.33:1/ 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (all films)
DVD Release: Optimum
Region Coding: Region 2 PAL
Retail Price: £39.99
Overview: Optimum have collected four noted and disparate movies from the beginnings of Louis Malle’s career. Malle was a very versatile director who made a number of films in English and for whom directing came about when first Jacques Cousteau, then Robert Bresson took him into their film crews. The four films collected here include Malle’s feature debut and his most controversial film.
Ascenseur (aka Lift to the Scaffold, aka Elevator to the Gallows): Julien is an ex-mercenary working for an arms dealer, Carala. Unknown to Carala, he has been having an affair with Carala’s wife, Florence, and the two plan to stage Carala’s suicide to be rid of him. Julien carries out the deed but manages to get locked in to the office block and trapped in a lift. Meanwhile his car is stolen by wild boy, Louis, and his girlfriend, Veronique. When Louis’ actions go too far, Julien is falsely accused of two murders of German tourists. Still trapped in the lift when the police come looking, Julien escapes only to be arrested for the other murders. His only chance of being cleared is Florence finding some photographs of Louis and the Germans.
Ascenseur is a wonderfully intricate ironic thriller. It concerns two criminal couples who commit murder. One is the sophisticated Julien and Florence whose affair can become a reality if her husband is removed from the equation using a clever plan involving a staged suicide. Julien and Florence’s future is ruined when the second less bourgeois couple of the shopgirl, Veronique, and the wild one, Louis, steal Julien’s car and use it for a Badlands style ride. Louis’s lies and attempt to play the role of Julien the ex-soldier meet ridicule and Louis kills the ridiculers. Trapped in their own mess Louis and Veronique attempt a romantic suicide pact only to realise that Julien can be blamed for their crimes. Florence realises that this couple killed the Germans and not Julien and in her efforts to prove his innocence she leads both couples to their doom.
Ascenseur is a great film, witty, convincing and with a tremendously ironic sense of destiny. All the lovers end up incriminating themselves because of their love for one another. Florence rushes to get the photographs which prove Louis’s guilt not knowing that the same film contains shots which expose her own guilt. Malle shoots the characters with a realism and lack of comment that at the time brought howls of derision from his technicians, how could he allow Jeanne Moreau to look so tired and old! He also includes an excellent score from a young Miles Davis which compliments the nighttime scenes and the final chase brilliantly.
One of the finest of films to be associated with the French cinema renaissance of the late 50’s and early sixties, Ascenseur shows many of the hallmarks of later Nouvelle Vague films with excellent use of location shooting and a strong sense of the hardboiled thrillers of Hollywood. Ascenseur is a must own for any fan of French Cinema.
Les Amants (aka The Lovers): Jeanne is bored with her marriage to Henri and her country life near Dijon. She has picked up a polo playing lover, Raoul, on her frequent trips to Paris to relieve her boredom. Her husband’s suspicions about her trips result in a backhanded invitation to her friend, Maggy, and Raoul for a weekend visit to Jeanne and Henri. Returning from Paris, Jeanne’s car breaks down and she imposes herself on the resolutely unpretentious Bernard. Despite her rudeness, Bernard takes her back home and is asked to stay over with the rather awkward guests. When Jeanne can’t sleep she encounters Bernard in the houses grounds and her complicated life starts to become simple.
Les Amants caused tremendous controversy when it was originally released. The basic story of an unsatisfied wife having not one but two affairs was bad enough for the censorious right, but that the film equated a sexual awakening with a rejection of the bourgeois and the metropolitan was a statement too far for many. Even worse the film showed sexual congress as a form of liberation and included suggestions of cunnilingus as well as brief nudity.
Les Amants is a terrific film that can read a bit like a romantic novel in reverse. Jeanne forsakes her intellectual husband and her athletic metropolitan lover for the down at heel pastoral Bernard. Jeanne leaves a life of luxury, sophistication and possessions for one that makes her doubt herself. Malle shows this brilliantly by using Moreau’s versatile beauty. At the beginning she is sophisticatedly dressed, elegatly coiffeured and bedecked in jewellery -she even talks about the importance of haircuts to her disinterested husband. When Moreau becomes liberated by Bernard she forsakes make up and Chanel clothes for a natural look. This central theme of reconnecting to the natural is brilliantly done through fine mise-en-scene when Bernard and Jeanne make love they do it in a boat floating down a river under brilliant moonlight.
Les Amants is the best film in this set and a true masterpiece, a film that foreshadows the later work of Chabrol and Bunuel. Tremendous.
Zazie Dans Le Metro: When his sister comes to Paris, Gabi is asked to look after her daughter Zazie. At first Zazie seems she is going to be no trouble to her uncle but then he learns she has a mind of her own and is desperate to ride on the Metro. This proves difficult as the Metro is on strike and Gabi struggles to keep Zazie entertained because of his job as a drag act in a nightclub. Zazie decides to make her own fun by finding out about her uncle and investigating the markets of Paris. Her desire to be entertained leads to all manner of problems for the adults around her as her precociousness turns their worlds upside down.
This film is most definitely a one-off. Slapstick comedy, silent movie montages and speeded-up camerawork are it’s staples. At the core of the largely irrelevant story is one young girl who creates complete chaos for the adult world around her. Zazie plays with dirty old men to get what she wants and leads them a dance, she taunts a taxi driver for his fear of women and constantly asks her uncle if he is a “omersessual”. The adult world around her is decidedly under attack and rather foolish. This leads to scenes of physical comedy such as food fights whilst she sleeps bored with the adult sophistication around her.
Zazie was written with Jean-Paul Rappeneau, who later directed the magnificent Cyrano de Bergerac. Zazie was an attempt by Malle to do something different and it certainly is! It resembles later films like Bugsy Malone or ealier comedies of Mack Sennet. The character of Gabi even wears Harold Lloyd type glasses. When the film is hurtling forward at several hundred miles per second it is a complete joy and it would be a mistake to spend too much time on any greater meaning than the delivery of a childlike screwball comedy. On this score, Zazie delivers.
At the centre of the film is an engaging performance from Catherine Demongeot as phenonemally charismatic and intelligent as the agent of chaos, Zazie. After she has caused the adult world to collapse around her, she finally gets to go on the Metro but is asleep throughout and announces to her mother how dull her experience has been. For the audience this is most definitely not the case. Eclectic stuff.
Le Feu Follet (aka the Fire Within): Alain, is a nearly reformed alcoholic who is not convinced that his cure makes the world anymore bearable. His wife has moved on and everyone reminds him what a fun drunk he was. His friends have political causes, families and businesses and he simply has despair. He travels to Paris from the clinic he is at and meets all his old friends for a last time. He sees impossible causes for which others will die for and marriages which seem lost in routine. Despite the efforts of his friends he returns to the clinic and decides this world is not for him.
The Fire Within follows a world weary Alain whose drink fuelled lust for life has become jaded. Women still find him attractive but their beauty depresses him, old friends get him to drink to recall what he was like and he understands other’s disapproval of him only too well. Much as Leaving las Vegas would do later this anatomy of a suicide is diffificult stuff, it asks you to share Alain’s despair at the emptiness of reasons to live. Alain’s inability to settle for compromise or to let himself off for previous mistakes is done well and the audience is asked to merely understand him rather than approve.
The Fire Within is not a barrel of laughs, it presents a world where being mad is better than the cure and the things we are told to live for ring hollow. Alain’s friends are trapped in marriages where one partner values the normality and the other may still look for affection elsewhere, his other friends fight political wars in between time in prison achieving little. Alain’s drinking allowed him to be good fun or a useful anecdote but now he is cured he sees the emptiness where he used to see double.
The Fire Within is fine work and infinitely preferable to the juvenilia of Leaving Las Vegas, but it lacks warmth or hope. Perhaps that is unfair to such a topic but 105 minutes in the company of Alain leaves you wanting some of those qualities
The four films are presented on four discs. Three of the films are presented anamorphically and the fourth, Zazie, is presented with a restored transfer. Zazie is the only colour film in the set. The video on all four discs is very good although the prints do have odd marks and the print of Zazie is the weakest. The print for Les Amants is much better than the regular print which has been shown on UK TV recently. All four discs carry burnt in English subs. The sound on the discs is mono throughout and is fine with an excellent soundtrack on Ascenseur which brings out the late night jazzy score well. There is little distortion or noise on the audio for any of the films.
The extras include interviews with malle’s brother, Rene Urtreger and Jean-Paul Rappenea. Best of all the 1962 short “Vive le Tour” is also included.
This is a rather good set of fine films. Les Amants and Ascenseur are films that you should own if you like French cinema or appreciate later glories of the Nouvelle Vague. You may even want it just to see a polar bear juggle fire! It will make a nice complement to Criterion’s recent boxset of later Malle films. Thouroughly recommended.
For more information about the Louis Malle Collection Volume One and other titles released by Optimum visit their website.