Testament to the power and mastery of a movie that, nearly 60 years on, still feels as modern, complex and cutting-edge as any film released…
Louis Malle, who died last week at 63, was a director whose movies caused scandal sometimes for their content, sometimes for their style, sometimes for both. The respected French filmmaker, married since 1980 to actress Candice Bergen, died Thursday at their home in Los Angeles, from lymphoma.
Although Malle was of the same generation as the members of the French New Wave (Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Chabrol, Rohmer), he did not begin, as most of them did, as a critic. And his career followed no overall pattern, perhaps by design. Each Malle film was different from the last, and he filmed as happily in Texas, New Jersey, Louisiana or India as in his native France. Consider his filmography, and you are confronted by works that could have been done by a dozen different men. He began in 1956 as a collaborator of Jean-Jacques Costeau on the underwater documentary "The Silent World." His early features included the erotic film "The Lovers" (1958), which helped make Jeanne Moreau a star, and the comedy "Viva Maria!" (1965), with its unlikely pairing of Moreau and Brigitte Bardot.
In the late 1960s he made two documentaries about India, "Calcutta" (1969) and "Phantom India" (1970), and in 1971 the succes de scandale "Murmur of the Heart," which somehow succeeded in treating the theme of incest with humor and taste.
In the next 10 years he made an extraordinary series of films, including "Lacombe, Lucien" (1974), about a young French boy who becomes an unwitting Nazi collaborator; "Pretty Baby" (1978), which starred 12-year-old Brooke Shields in the controversial story of child prostitution in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, and "Atlantic City" (1980), with its unforgettable portraits by Burt Lancaster as an aging gangster and Susan Sarandon as the woman he meets at a crucial point in his life."
Malle's "My Dinner with Andre" (1981) was one of the unlikeliest hits in movie history. Starring Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn as two friends who meet for dinner, it consisted of exactly that: the nearly two-hour record of their dinner conversation. The description makes it sound boring, but audiences loved it, and it ran for more than a year in some theaters. It worked because of sparkling dialogue, the droll screen presences of the stars and the subtly moving camera that somehow never let it become as static as it seemed.
The remaining 14 years of his career were not as blessed with popular success. "Crackers" (1984) was a comedy that didn't work. "Alamo Bay" (1985) was an ambitious story about Gulf fishermen in Texas and their feud with newly arrived Vietnamese; it was thoughtful and powerful but failed at the box office. In 1987 he returned to France to make "Au revoir les enfants," the story of students at a boy's school and how one of them unwittingly betrays his Jewish friend to the Nazis. It was a masterpiece, and I remember him weeping after the premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, saying, "This is the secret of my life" - not that he betrayed a childhood friend, but that similar guilt had tortured him. The film won the Golden Lion at Venice and seven Cesars, the French Academy Awards, including one for best film.
Malle stayed in France to make "May Fools" in 1990; it was a sunny, Renoiresque story of the 1968 political upheavals, seen through the prism of an unconventional family. His "Damage" (1992), set in London, was for me a powerful and brilliant film of erotic obsession, starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche as a man and woman who are wordlessly attracted to one another and have an affair with harrowing consequences. His last film was "Vanya On 42nd Street" (1994), reuniting Gregory and Shawn with an ensemble of actors for a "reading" of the Vanya play in a decrepit Manhattan theater that mysteriously became a country house in Russia.
Malle's marriage to Bergen, which came relatively late in life for both of them, was a great joy; they had a daughter, and often traveled together to be with each other at work, although by mutual choice he never directed her in a film. Her perfect French, learned as a child, bridged their nationalities; under her tutelage, his English improved until he could film fluently in the language.
In recent years he had been troubled with heart disease as well as lymphoma, and both knew his days were numbered. But at the 1994 Telluride festival, flinging his arms around old friends Gregory and Shawn, he seemed energetic as he celebrated the reception of "Vanya on 42nd Street," which, like "My Dinner with Andre," worked as a movie even though it seemed at first glance defiantly anti-cinematic.
"I don't like to keep repeating myself," he said, and no one, looking at his life's work, could ever accuse him of that.
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