Louis Malle (1932–1995) is generally included in the remarkable group of French Nouvelle Vague directors who came along at the end of the 1950s. In some ways, however, his inclusion is a kind of anomaly. His films tend to lack the emotional wallop of Francois Truffaut’s; the stylistic iconoclasm of Jean-Luc Godard’s; or the quasi-Hitchcockian sardonicism of Claude Chabrol’s. Rather than reshaping the course of film criticism at Cahiers du cinéma, Malle had apprenticed himself to the great documentarian/oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, as well as Robert Bresson and Jacques Tati. Unlike the Cahiers crowd (who mostly venerated classical Hollywood cinema), Malle frequently aspired to break away from the confines of France and actually make films in America. Ultimately, he would even marry the actress Candice Bergen (the flesh-and-blood sibling of the Oscar-winning wooden dummy, Charlie McCarthy, star of many short films coinciding with Malle’s diaper days.) Malle died in Beverly Hills without ever winning an Oscar himself.
The radiant Jeanne Moreau had already made over 20 films before she appeared in Malle’s first film, Elevator to the Gallows, which, together with Les amants (The Lovers) (with its precedent-shattering orgasm), started her ascendancy to international stardom. (Soon, she would be working with all the New Wave directors, not to mention Orson Welles, Joseph Losey, Luis Buñuel, and Michelangelo Antonioni.) A censorship case against The Lovers in the U.S. gave us Justice Potter Stewarts’s famous dictum about knowing pornography “when I see it.” Malle’s film was exonerated, which opened the floodgates to greater freedom in the movies. In some ironic way, this may have been Malle’s greatest gift to Hollywood.
While Elevator to the Gallows (aka Frantic) had been shot mostly on the streets of Paris, jumping the gun on the New Wave, The Lovers was more in keeping with Malle’s own upbringing as a descendant of French nobility. Similarly, his extraordinary The Fire Within, made five years later and his penultimate film with Moreau, deals with the alcoholism of a rich young man. Eventually, in later years, Malle would take up problems of the have-nots and other social issues.
Critic John Baxter has written of Malle, “Of the New Wave survivors, he was the most old-fashioned, the most erotic, and, arguably, the most widely successful.” On eroticism, Baxter stresses not just the example of The Lovers but the suggested fellatio in Viva Maria, the incest in Murmur of the Heart, the child prostitution in Pretty Baby, and the sadomasochism in Lacombe, Lucien. Godard has prided himself on his sophistication, and Truffaut would argue that he never lost his childlike sense of wonder. Yet Malle brings a kind of maturity that Baxter sees as more sustainable than that of his “flashier” competitors.
Although such lovely mid-career works as Murmur of the Heart, Lacombe, Lucien, and the later Au Revoir les enfants more than paid his dues to French history and culture, Malle was to spend most of his last two decades in America, with decidedly mixed results. He seems to have comfort-level problems with most American locations and environments. I think the one great exception to this is Atlantic City (1980), his nostalgic look at the decaying (but then in the process of being renewed) New Jersey resort. Susan Sarandon and the 67-year-old Burt Lancaster are terrific, and Lancaster sums up the aging process for all of us, for all time, with his offhand remark, “The Atlantic Ocean was really something in those days,”a line presumably written by the playwright John Guare. I had the opportunity of meeting Malle and Guare briefly at the Museum much later, when they were working on a biographical film on Marlene Dietrich that would star Uma Thurman. The film was, unfortunately, never made, but I can report that Malle was, indeed, highly professional and not “flashy.”