Louis Malle’s acclaimed film about a preocious adolescent’s coming-of-age is finally brought to DVD by Criterion. The film is is available either individually or in a box-set with two of Malle’s other films: Lacombe, Lucien and Au Revoir Les Enfants. All deal with the transitional period of adolescence but of the three Murmur of the Heart is comfortably the most light-hearted.
‘This isn’t your papa’s cinema!’ proclaimed the trailer; proceeding to show a bourgeois family placidly assembled for dinner, only for the two elder sons to engage in a match of ‘spinach tennis’, raid the wine cellar and invite a group of comely female friends over… for dancing (to jazz). What might have once scandalised the cineastes à papa seems rather innocuous by today’s standards of anarchy, but the sunny quaintness of Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart and its delicately handled taboo subject matter ensure that it remains an entertaining, often sardonically observant, coming of age story. The film has been released by Criterion and is available either individually or in a box-set with two of Malle’s other films: Lacombe, Lucien and Au Revoir Les Enfants. All deal with the transitional period of adolescence but of the three Murmur of the Heart is comfortably the most light-hearted; charting precocious adolescent Laurent’s progress from being a smart-alecky naïf to becoming a sexually experienced, smart-alecky naïf, charming the audience along the way with his unfeigned gaucheness and astringently dry dialogue, all of which is delivered to deadpan perfection by actor Benoît Ferreux.
The film generated considerable controversy upon its original release (the reaction to it is often cited, along with the outcry prompted by Lacombe, Lucien, as being a motivating factor behind Malle’s exile in America), and although the plot detail that engendered such pique is by now, perhaps, relatively common knowledge I’ve elected to discuss it only during the spoiler section. Laurent is the youngest of three brothers: he is cosseted and coddled by his mother, mocked by his brothers and treated with indifferent perplexity by his father. He excels at school – unlike his elder siblings he is intelligent – and is deemed to be the ‘sensitive’ member of the family. Superficially he appears not entirely dissimilar from Julien, the protagonist of Au Revoir Les Enfants, given his academic capabilities, discreetly sensitive sensibility and deceptive appearance of disdain, which may not be altogether surprising considering both works are among Louis Malle’s most autobiographical – although Laurent is arguably less conflicted than Julien, in spite of his predilection for the work of Camus. The family itself is something of a conflicted entity: on the one hand there is the father, gloomy and restrained, and on the other the two older brothers, infantile and loud, Laurent, a little distant and preoccupied, and their startlingly young and vivacious mother, Clara. We first see her in fits of laughter as she wrestles with her children after a failed attempt to steal money from her purse. She seems less a matriarch than a sibling – or even a girlfriend; she almost seems more youthful than the various paramours who come and go throughout the film.
Malle’s film has a rare honeyed glow, as though it was already being seeped in nostalgia as it was being made (the film is set in the mid-50s, a period evoked with quiet affection and a careful – though not excessive – attention to detail) and despite its claims to being risqué, it is ultimately striking for its innocence. Never has a trip to the local bordello – intended for Laurent to unburden himself of his virginity – seemed so carefree or curiously proper. The affable prostitute even politely insists that Laurent isn’t to kiss her on the mouth – that’s her fiancé’s entitlement. Clara clumsily conducts an affair, Laurent is discovered to have a heart murmur (a nice, tidy metaphor for his burgeoning amorous feelings for the girls around him) and the two decamp to a health spa, where both meet with sexual rejection, leading to rather unexpected consequences.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS
The culmination of the film, Laurent’s act of incest with his mother (oh dear, I’ve made its presentation sound for more obscene than it actually is), unsurprisingly ruffled more than a few feathers upon the film’s release, but what’s remarkable about the scene is its unexploitative and tender depiction of this pivotal moment in Laurent’s coming of age and how the act does, at least in context, feel excusable. One critic questioned whether Laurent’s subsequent liaison with a voluptuous coeval was Malle’s attempt to enforce the audience’s sense of Laurent’s normality. Whilst I don’t entirely subscribe to this viewpoint, the notion that by sleeping with mommie dearest Laurent is suddenly empowered to continue his night of passion with another partner does have the slight undertone of Malle making excuses; as though he were wishing to further confirm Laurent’s entry into manhood and his adolescent virility with a more traditional, convenient and willing fling. The ending also grates slightly: Laurent returns to his room in the morning to find his entire family assembled, munching on their breakfast. All of them gape and laugh affectionately at him, realising what has happened. It’s an unpleasantly glib ending to a film that, via Clara, professes to be unashamed of the volatile material it covers but ultimately settles for an easy punch-line that cheapens the experience; tying the film closer to a sex-comedy (which admittedly it is, at least in part) than a wise, understated recounting of adolescent travails and the surprising ways in which they can be resolved.
Murmur of the Heart is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. With the exception of the opening credits (which are letterboxed) the transfer has been anamorphically enhanced. Criterion has done a typically masterful transfer of the film: the video quality is excellent, free from print damage and mostly very sharp with a good representation of the film’s slightly muted colours. It’s only let down by a couple of scenes that appear excessively grainy and look unusually soft when compared to the rest of the film. The mono soundtrack is clear and untouched by audio hiss. Subtitles are presented in a good-sized font and are easily read.
Extras are minimal: an interesting essay by Michael Sragow and the film’s raucous trailer. If the film is bought as part of the box-set, however, a fourth disc which contains some interviews is included.
Louis Malle’s career has been distinctive both for the quality of his films and for the delicacy with which he has handled the often challenging issues they depict. Murmur of the Heart is no exception, and like Au Revoir Les Enfants it possesses the paradoxical ability to both carry a redolence of classic French cinema whilst simultaneously existing as a timelessly pertinent and truthful work of film in its own right. Criterion’s DVD is lacking in extras, but the beauty of the film’s presentation is satisfactory compensation.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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