A Book Review by Thomas M. Puhr.
The cumulative effect of this collection, therefore, is nothing short of revelatory. All the more reason to revisit the director’s wildly unpredictable – and consistently exceptional – body of work.”
Louis Malle is hard to pin down. The French director’s genre-hopping – film noir (Elevator to the Gallows, 1958), sexually frank romance (The Lovers, 1958), screwball comedy (Zazie dans le métro, 1960), anthropological documentary (Phantom India, 1969), coming-of-age chronicle (Murmur of the Heart, 1971), surreal fairy tale (Black Moon, 1975), World War II drama (Au revoir les enfants, 1987), experimental stage adaptation (Vanya on 42nd Street, 1994) – can boggle the mind with its variety. Was he, despite his insistence to the contrary, an icon of the French New Wave? A button-pushing provocateur? A nationless hired gun? Arguments can be made that he embodies any, every, or none of these labels. At times, it seems the only thing lending his oeuvre consistency is its impressive success rate; even the occasional misstep (see 1984’s Crackers) bears traces of his ineffable creative stamp.
In his useful introduction to Louis Malle: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi), editor Christopher Beach explicates the threads uniting such seemingly disparate works: “Malle’s films are generally set within definite historical, cultural, or social contexts, and they often deal with intense psychological, erotic, or interpersonal situations.…several of them treat themes of maturation and the loss of innocence.”
Other trends emerge. The prevalence of jazz music. The willingness to centralize morally complicated protagonists, like the titular Nazi collaborator of Lacombe, Lucien (1974), or the teen prostitute of Pretty Baby (1978). Even so, the qualifiers peppering Beach’s overview (generally set…several of them)are telling. It’s difficult to define just what makes a Louis Malle film a Louis Malle film; consequently, “his extreme eclecticism and…wide-ranging artistic palette…has at times been regarded as a form of dilettantism.”
The filmmaker’s relegation to the sidelines – next to contemporaries like Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut, he remains lesser known – lends an urgency to this publication. Because a majority of its entries are presented in English for the first time (Beach pulls double duty here, having translated interviews from Cinéma, Image et Son – La Revue du cinéma, Positif, Cinématographe, and Jeune Cinéma), Louis Malle: Interviews should proveessential among monolingual American and British audiences. It doesn’t hurt that Malle is a consistently eloquent (and occasionally scathing) subject; of the text’s seventeen chapters, you won’t encounter any fluff.
Beach conveniently divides Malle’s career into four distinct phases, the first being his emergence as an artist in the late ’50s and early ’60s. A 1960 interview concerns Zazie’s impending release, but the conversation with René Gilson also provides tantalizing details on some aborted projects, such as a Greece-set adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s A Victory. “It was really naïve and pretentious on my part to imagine that one could remake Conrad,” he says, which makes me wonder what he thought of Apocalypse Now nearly twenty years later. We also get the seemingly rare instance of Malle skirting controversy by making Zazie four years younger than her teenaged counterpart in Queneau’s source novel.
The second phase centers on his early ’70s work in both documentaries and coming-of-age period pieces (with the odd outlier being the strange, beautiful, horribly underappreciated Black Moon). Though the thematic gap dividing Murmur of the Heart from Phantom India may feel vast, Malle asserts the contrary. “I needed the complete rupture of that trip [to India] to help me break through a certain number of blockages in myself,” he tells Guy Braucourt, “which prevented me from saying things fully, and which forced me to take roundabout routes like using screenplays written by other people.”
The American years – beginning with Pretty Baby and ending with the 1986 documentary …and the Pursuit of Happiness – constitute phase three. Of the seven films released during this period, My Dinner with Andre (1981) remains the crown jewel. Most fascinating is the director’s reflections on his stripped-down visual approach to the wordy material. Avoiding the temptation to “have a crane and dance around them [Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn],” he quickly understood “that was exactly the wrong approach, because the moment the spectator felt the camera, the spell would be broken.” Indeed, Malle’s films exude an effortlessness that can sometimes mask the delicacy and precision with which they were constructed. Like the titular dinner’s table talk, his minimal camera trickery remains subtly radical. He trusted the material to speak for itself. Echoes of this visual austerity can be found in his fourth phase, especially in Au revoir les enfants. Vaguely described as “an artistic peak” – which may just as easily apply to any other decade of his all-too-short career (he’d die at 63, surely with a few more great movies left in him) – this phase reached its conclusion with Vanya on 42nd Street.
The last featured interview, with Positif in 1994, shows Malle reflecting on his cross-cultural approach. “The power of Europe,” he says, “is the sum of all our cultures.” Cultural specificity should be emphasized rather than effaced. The trajectory of mass market cinema, however, paints a portrait far bleaker than Malle likely could have imagined when he railed against filmmaking geared toward the lowest common denominator.
I sometimes take contemporary director interviews for granted. A quick Google search will yield content – often translated with a similarly staggering speed – from around the world. Finding an untranslated conversation from a long-defunct French journal, on the other hand, feels near impossible (even with the vast online resources at one’s fingertips). The cumulative effect of this collection, therefore, is nothing short of revelatory. All the more reason to revisit the director’s wildly unpredictable – and consistently exceptional – body of work.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.