The Louis Malle Collection: Volume 2 Review

Following on from their first Malle collection, reviewed here, Volume 2 contains five more of Louis Malle’s films. They include two or maybe three of his major works, one light piece and one very strange rarity.

Volume 1 ended with Le feu follet from 1963. That film was certainly a major work, but given its downbeat subject matter (suicide), Malle could be forgiven for kicking up his heels and having some fun with Viva Maria! in 1965. He returned to France to make Le voleur in 1967. Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Genevieve Bujold, this period piece apparently shows Malle’s lighter side. It is not often shown and is not included in this box set. A contribution to the portmanteau horror film Tales of Mystery and Imagination followed (the other contributors being Federico Fellini and Roger Vadim), as did the documentary Calcutta and the made-for-TV Phantom India. (Calcutta and Phantom India are available on DVD from Criterion in their Eclipse line, both individually and as a six-disc box set, The Documentaries of Louis Malle.

Le souffle au coeur (1971) (113:23, Certificate 18)

This mini review discusses the film’s ending, though it is one that is well known.
Malle’s next feature was certainly controversial. The title translates as The Heart Murmur or Murmur of the Heart, and it is usually known in English as the latter. However, it was called Dearest Love on its original UK release. Set in the 1950s in Dijon, the film follows the fortune of Laurent (Benoit Ferreux), the delicate youngest child of Clara (Lea Massari). Le soufflé au coeur is basically a comic coming-of-age story, taking advantage of permissiveness to include some quite ribald sex talk amongst Laurent’s local brothers. But it’s a fraught experience for young Laurent: beginning with masturbation, a confession to the local predatory priest, not to mention an abortive encounter with a prostitute. Finally he falls sick with the heart murmur of the title and is taken to a health spa by his mother. After both are unlucky in love, Laurent and his mother find solace in each other.

Le souffle au coeur contains probably the most benevolent treatment of incest in cinema history outside the porn genre. It’s fair to say that sensibilities have changed since 1971, and the film’s reputation has dropped a little as a result. Nowadays you would expect a incident of mother-son incest, even if consensual, to have as dark and fraught an emotional fallout as it does in Spanking the Monkey, say. In Malle’s film it’s a nice, romantic interlude – and the only result is that Laurent, now he has finally had his virginity removed, can’t be seen for dust, sexually speaking.

There’s no denying that this is often a very funny film, if you’re not too easily offended, and Malle displays an appropriately light touch. But it’s a film whose entire outlook dates it, and many will find the subject matter untenable.

Lacombe Lucien (1974) (132:09, Certificate 12)
This disc was not available for review, so I refer you to Mark Boydell’s review of the Criterion edition here.

Black Moon (1975) (96:19, Certificate 12)

Black Moon is a very strange film, coscripted by Joyce Bunuel (Luis’s daughter in law), combining elements of SF, fantasy and fairytale, not to mention large dollops of Alice in Wonderland. A young girl, Lily (Cathryn Harrison), is driving across the French countryside. She encounters a military roadblock, where soldiers are executing a group of women. She barely escapes with her life and finds herself at a strange manor house. Inside, an elderly invalid (Therese Giehse) is tended by a brother and sister (Joe Dallesandro and Alexandra Stewart) while outside a gaggle of naked children wander around with a large pig. And there’s a talking unicorn in the grounds as well.

What this all adds up to is obscure, but it’s intriguing for much of its length. The dialogue is in English, though you’ll wait twenty-three minutes to hear the first line, and of the credited cast of four, Stewart and Dallesandro never say a word. It’s a tribute to Cathryn Harrison, only fifteen at the time, that she carries the film as well as she does. Black Moon certainly looks good, with camerawork from Sven Nykvist, who went on to photograph Malle’s first American film, Pretty Baby. Black Moon was a complete failure, commercially and critically: this DVD marks its first commercial release in the UK.

Pretty Baby, controversial at the time for its treatment of child sexuality, followed in 1978, and for the next ten years, Malle worked in the USA. The results include one of his very best films (Atlantic City), a bona fide cult item (My Dinner With André) and a couple of lesser works (Crackers, Alamo Bay). He returned to his native country in 1987, and the result was a triumph.

Au revoir les enfants (1987) (100:33, Certificate 12 [see below])

It’s World War II and France is an occupied country. Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) arrives at a boarding school run by Catholic friars. Also in the school is Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö). The two boys dislike each other at first but soon become friends. Then Julien discovers that Jean’s real surname is Kippelstein and he is a Jew, given sanctuary from the Nazis.

Au revoir les enfants was based on a real incident in Malle’s youth, when he was a boarder in Fontainebleu in 1942. Even so, he waited some forty-five years to tell the story – just as well, as the film is one of his very best. Malle doesn’t stereotype the Germans, who are mostly seen as people doing a job, reserving most of his ire for the French who collaborated with them. Given the anti-clerical slant of some of Malle’s films, Le souffle au coeur most notably, his portrayal of the priests and friars is sympathetic. This is a deceptively low-key film which packs a considerable punch.

(The film itself carries a PG certificate, but a reference to child molestation in the Vincent Malle interview raises the certificate of the disc to 12.)

Milou en mai (1990) (102:31, Certificate 15)

Malle followed the personal drama of Au revoir les enfants with a more lightweight piece, Milou en mai, which was known as May Fools in the USA. By now, Malle was in his late fifties, and the film he made was the sort of autumnal piece (despite its title) that many artists make in later life. Echoes of Chekhov and in particular the Renoir of La règle du jeu are overt in this story of Milou (Michel Piccoli) whose mother has just died. Children and grandchildren and inlaws gather at Milou’s family estate for the funeral. In the background, heard mostly over the radio, the events of the May 1968 uprisings play out. Is this a new French revolution in the making?

The events of 1968, with students manning the barricades, is a subject little dealt with in French cinema, apart from the films made at the time. Milou en mai is not the first time Malle has dealt with the subject of political revolution – it’s there, not entirely buried by the surface froth of Viva Maria!. But as with that earlier film, you sense a distance from the subject, perhaps rooted in Malle’s bourgeois background. He’s happier dealing with the foibles and antics of these characters as they listen to the news and wonder if their world is about to end. The result is a pleasant hour and three quarters, nice to look at but hardly substantial.

Milou en mai was Malle’s last film in France. With his next, he moved to London to shoot Damage, a well made but rather cold account of the destructive affair between MP Jeremy Irons and his son’s girlfriend Juliette Binoche. Finally, Malle crossed the Atlantic to New York. If Milou en mai had alluded to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, then Malle finished his career with a docu-drama showing actors at work in rehearsals for the play, Vanya on 42nd Street. Louis Malle died in 1995.

The DVDs
Optimum’s box set comprises five discs, Black Moon single-layered, the others DVD-9s, all encoded for Region 2 only.

All the films were shot in colour and in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1, all of them anamorphically enhanced on DVD. Given that, the colour of the period pieces, Le souffle au coeur and Au revoir les enfants is intentionally desaturated, while the summery subject matter of Milou lends itself to brighter hues. The transfers are generally very good, though some macroblocking can be seen on some surfaces, such as walls. This is something which shows up less on more forgiving displays.

The soundtracks of the first three films are mono. Au revoir les enfants was made in Dolby Stereo, which results in a Dolby Surround mix on the DVD. This is mostly front and centre, with the surrounds being used mainly for ambience, most noticeably in the opening scene in the railway station. For Milou en mai Malle for some reason returned to mono. As with the earlier films, there’s no real problem with these mixes, as the dialogue is always clear and well balanced with the sound effects. Subtitles are fixed. Some German dialogue in Au revoir les enfantas is intentionally left unsubtitled, as is the English-language feature Black Moon.

There are fewer extras on this set than on the first volume. Each film contains the relevant extracts from an interview with Vincent Malle, the director’s brother, by Paul Ryan. These are short (respectively, 8:39, 8:07, 5:01, 8:03 and 9:43). As you can see from the running times, he has little to say about Black Moon which even he considers a disaster. Milou en mai he has more to say about, possibly because it is the most recent film in the set and partly because by all accounts it was the most enjoyable shoot. We also hear the story that a mishearing of the title of Au revoir les enfants gave Quentin Tarantino the title of his first film, Reservoir Dogs. Malle speaks in English throughout.

The remaining extra is a short (5:21) discussion by Guy Magen on the character of Joseph in Au revoir les enfants. Talking in French (subtitled), Magen with the aid of appropriate extracts at a character who is more complex than at first appears.

Three of the films - Le souffle au coeur, Lacombe Lucien, Au revoir les enfants - are available from Criterion, either singly or as a boxset. Those discs are clearly superior with regards to extras. However, Optimum’s two boxsets are undeniably cheaper and are not devoid of useful extras. Black Moon and Milou en mai are hardly essential, but Malle fans will be glad to have them.

7 out of 10
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