Louis Malle Atlantic City 1981

  • Not on view

Malle emulated some of the greatest of all film directors (Jean Renoir, Max Ophüls, John Ford) by finding the present mirrored in a simpler and more palatable past. In Atlantic City his characters see the present through a gauze of memories. They inhabit the poignancy of a place in total transition from a glitteringly tacky past to what will turn out to be (although no one knew it in 1980) an even more glittering and tacky future. Nostalgic memory is pitted against economic renewal in a drama set before the vulgar backdrop of the beginnings of Ronald Reagan's America.

Change can breed hopelessness in characters like Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster), who looks back on the old days, "when the Atlantic Ocean was really something." It breeds hopefulness in Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon), however false the promise may be. Abetted by superlative performances, Malle sensitively develops a credible relationship between these extremes, bespeaking a modern sensibility—but not so modern that he does not provide a careful balance between the two. Malle was the first French New Wave director to burst on the scene, with Les Amants (The Lovers) in 1958, and he was the only New Wave director to make a serious crossover into America. In subject matter and theme, Atlantic City is the most American of his films.

Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 37.
Denis Heroux
Object number

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