(1932 - 1995)
Three Key Films: Elevator to the Gallows (1958), My Dinner With Andre (1981), Atlantic City (1981)
Underrated: Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), Malle’s muscular final film, a riveting adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, starring Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore.
Unforgettable: In The Lovers (1958), a haunting, sensual Jeanne Moreau virtually floating through a sequence set in an estate’s garden in the midnight hour like a nymph with glowing wings. The film was later brought up on obscenity charges in front of the Supreme Court of the United States in part for being the first to dare to show a close-up of a woman achieving orgasm. Quel scandal!
The Legend: Malle’s preoccupation with the upper-crust of France is born from his direct involvement with high society in real life: he was the heir to a sugar empire born into a world of tremendous privilege and power. One could argue that without this upbringing, and access to this world, Malle as an artist might not have had such a strong point of view. At age 24, he was the co-director of Jacques Cousteau’s deep sea feature The Silent World (1956), and in essay packaged with Criterion’s edition of The Lovers, King’s College film studies professor Ginette Vincendeau points out that Malle often drew upon real-life experiences, preferring to reflect, much in the style of a documentarian, on what he was most familiar with.
Many of Malle’s filmic endeavors explore the sexuality and mystery of women, the allure of wealth, and the existential dilemmas of the bored rich class and what damage their decisions, often made on whims, can do to others. In The Lovers, there is no conscience to answer to, which is nice; to not be weighted down by a heavy-handed director’s personal sexual morality. Flash forward 34 years and the same can be said of his English-language stunner Damage (1992), in which the morality of the characters can be viewed as slippery at best. Malle, as a director examining human behavior, is expertly detached, as interested in spectatorship as the audience.
Last year, I asked Damage‘s Oscar-nominated star Miranda Richardson about working with the legendary director and his way of side-stepping over-moralizing in the film’s explosive key scene:
“We were supposed to have rehearsal the day before but that was kiboshed. We came to the morning of and he said (in a Louis Malle French accent) ‘you know, I don’t want to do too much. What do you think?’ And I said, I feel so at a loss that I need to do what the British do, and that is make a cup of tea. And so, I put the kettle on. He said ‘good, good, good.’ The handle, just from me putting it on the stove, the handle came away from the kettle, and I was like ‘what is going on?’ And I said I don’ t think I am going move very far. Its that thing of keeping going. If you see someone nervously dusting a table or dusting their clothes, its actually not what they’re thinking about. I think the scene was very well-written,which helps. And the audience is desperate for that, at that point. They’re desperate to feel what she feels, that somebody has got to pay for this and be told off, you know? That’s the moral center of the piece, and its kind of an amoral piece. That is the morality of the piece.”
Throughout his career, Malle often struggled with classification, and where he fit in the directorial style scope. His placement in the category of “auteur” was challenged by most critics of the time, who interpreted his work as neither singular enough to be considered a true auteur nor bombastic enough to be considered a tyro of the burgeoning New Wave, though his intimate articulation and interpretation of lived experiences insured his films would be distinctly his own, and not simply the product of privlege and influence. Films that directly reference and process Malle’s childhood years and World War II, such as Lacombe, Lucien (1974) and Au revoir les enfants (1987), are in every way equally as essential as his daring cinematic works of fiction,Murmur of the Heart (1971) and Pretty Baby (1978), which explore taboo sexualities. Coupled with his strength as a documentarian (see Calcutta aka Phantom India, the director’s personal favorite film), Malle proves to be a searingly versatile director with a distinct cinematic legacy left behind. Criterion’s recent release of Malle’s lyrical Black Moon, shot by Ingmar Bergman’s great cinematographer Sven Nykvist, simply confirms this. Matt Mazur