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Louis Malle, Innovative French Filmmaker



INNOVATIVE French filmmaker Louis Malle had the great advantage of being born into extreme wealth (he was heir to the Beghin sugar fortune), and perhaps his privileged start in life explains why he rarely received the same critical attention that his New Wave peers–Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, and Chabrol–commanded. Educated at the Sorbonne and at the IDHEC (the French government’s prestigious filmmaking school), Malle began his career in film working under Jacques Cousteau; he earned his first director’s credit on Cousteau’s undersea documentary Le Monde du silence (The Silent World, 1956). Malle’s first solo effort was the stylish mystery melodrama Frantic (1957), which had the distinction of being scored by Miles Davis.

In 1958, Malle made a splash that registered internationally with his notoriously graphic–sexually speaking, that is–film The Lovers, which starred Jeanne Moreau as a housewife who discovers the emptiness of her life by engaging in a passionate sexual encounter with a young archeologist. Despite its much ballyhooed sexual frankness, the film was actually meant as a study of upper-class ennui, and Malle won several festival awards for it. The Lovers was merely the flagship venture in a career that continued to scandalize, provoke, and challenge audiences all over the world.

His A Very Private Affair (1962) allegedly told the story of Brigitte Bardot’s life; The Fire Within (1963) disturbed audiences with its study of an alcoholic’s downward spiral to suicide; his six-hour documentary, Phantom India (1969), provoked official remonstrance from the Indian government for its frank and unflinching portrayal of the appalling poverty in India; Murmur of the Heart (1971) provided a blithe look at incest; Lacombe, Lucien (1974), an examination of France under Nazi occupation, yielded some unsettling results.

Louis Malle

Despite his artful approach to such weighty topics, Malle’s reputation as a scandalizing “sex” director was hard to subsume, and in his first American film, Pretty Baby (1978), he took a direct attack on the topic, this time by telling the story of a twelve-year-old prostitute (Brooke Shields) in W.W.I-era New Orleans. A string of Stateside releases followed on the heels of Pretty Baby–Atlantic City (1980) and My Dinner With Andre (1981) being the standouts. In 1987, Malle made a triumphant return to French cinema with Au revoir, les enfants, an autobiographical tale of his boyhood friendships in Nazi-occupied France. Commuting between his native country and the U.S. with his wife of fifteen years, actress Candice Bergen, Malle persisted in creating films of stylized beauty and perceptive social commentary, the last of which were 1992’s Damage and 1994’s Vanya on 42nd Street. Malle died of lymphoma in 1996.

I think predictability has become the rule and I’m completely the opposite–I like spectators to be disturbed. — Louis Malle