Film for the late French director Louis Malle — perhaps best known for his conversational arthouse bauble My Dinner With Andre
— was a way to explore the full breadth of what interested him in life;
he consequently helmed a diverse slate of work over the course of his
career, from documentaries and seriocomic romps to shambling character
studies and chic tales of adultery and recrimination. Still, it’s the
unique skill with which he honestly and adroitly located the wrenching
emotional realities of adolescence that mark his coming-of-age movies
as, collectively, his best and most timeless works. Gathering Murmur of the Heart, the virtually forgotten Lacombe, Lucien and Au Revoir Les Enfants in a superb boxed set, Criterion celebrates Malle’s unique insight and talent in fine fashion.
Set in France in the mid-1950s, 1971’s Murmur of the Heart
charts the maturation of a boy, Laurent Chevalier (Benoit Ferreux),
who’s driven by surging testosterone and a burgeoning curiosity in both
sex and music. After his older brothers take him to visit a prostitute
and he contracts the titular weakness, a symptom of scarlet fever,
Laurent visits a spa with his smothering mother Clara (Lea Massari),
where he starts to see her in quite a new light. The roots of queasy
taboo on display in writer-director David O. Russell’s debut, Spanking the Monkey, can be found here, though Malle manages to for the most part keep things light-hearted and accessible.
Two World War II-set films complete Criterion’s set. Starring non-professional Pierre Blaise, 1974’s Lacombe, Lucien
shines a light on the slow pull of personal corruption in telling the
story of an 18-year-old French peasant, sent away from his family’s
farm, who joins up with the occupying German police force. The film’s
emotional opacity dovetails nicely with Tonino Delli Colli’s foreboding
cinematography to create a memorable portrait of the banality of evil.
Au Revoir Les Enfants is Malle’s deeply personal 1987
masterwork, in which two parochial school students in 1944 France,
Julien (Gaspard Manesse) and Jean (Raphael Fejto), form a friendship
that’s torn asunder by the Gestapo. Though existing in a harsh setting
that bears surface similarities to Lacombe, Lucien, the movie
is unperturbed and matter-of-fact in tone, perfectly balanced between a
sweeping World War II melancholia and more personal connection. While
Malle rarely double-dipped explicitly into the same idea bin, the
inclusion of these two films and their pairing with Murmur of the Heart
feels right in its thematic arc for this set, offering up convincing
evidence that few directors have portrayed the to-scale epiphanies of
growing up as poetically as Malle.
Presented in brushed-up transfers in their original 1.66:1 aspect
ratio, all three of the aforementioned films are available separately
or in a boxed set that includes a hearty fourth disc with over four
hours of supplemental material. In addition to more than 40 minutes of
new interviews with Candice Bergen (Malle’s wife) and Malle biographer
Pierre Billard, there are also excerpts from a French television
program featuring the director on set on each of the films. Three audio
interviews spanning three different decades — two from the National
Film Theater in London and the other from the American Film Institute —
run an average of just over 45 minutes apiece, and give a nice overview
of Malle’s work in his own words.
The most tangentially inspired extra here — or, indeed, anywhere
that I’ve seen in a while — is the inclusion of Charlie Chaplin’s 1917
silent short The Immigrant, featured prominently in Au Revoir Les Enfants.
The original theatrical trailers and essays by historian Francis J.
Murphy and film critics Michael Sragow, Pauline Kael and Philip Kemp
round out the collection, along with a fold-out insert of Malle’s
filmography. To purchase the set via Amazon, click here. A- (Movies) A (Discs)