Murmur of the Heart (1971), Louis Malle’s comic masterpiece, is the most American of great French films. Indeed, with its youthful charm and rebellion, the film feels even more characteristically American than the mature and elusive masterpieces Malle went on to direct in America—Atlantic City, in 1980; My Dinner with Andre, the following year; and Vanya on 42nd Street, in 1994. From the start of his career, aspects of U.S. culture had always brought a special resonance to Malle’s movies: a Miles Davis soundtrack ignites Elevator to the Gallows (1957); the tiny heroine of Zazie dans le métro (1960) buys American jeans; the suicidal hero of The Fire Within (1963) chooses F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to be the final thing he reads. But Malle continually carbonates Murmur of the Heart with a Yankee-flavored fizz. Jazz by Charlie Parker and others fills the soundtrack. Visual and verbal references to American popular culture abound. Most importantly, Malle’s free-for-all view of haute-bourgeois family life has an American-style spontaneity and rambunctiousness. The adolescents in this film may be chic, but they’re iconoclastic, too. And even though the movie depicts psychologically charged material—including incest—that would normally resist comic handling, Malle gives the whole shebang a crackpot symmetry worthy of Hollywood screwball comedy at its peak.
Murmur of the Heart was, in fact, a turning point for Malle—or, rather, the turning point after a turning point. Malle emerged into world cinema seemingly full-grown, as a sleek craftsman boasting a rangy intelligence and stylistic invention and audacity. Whether codirecting Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s marine documentary The Silent World (1956); creating an inspired erotic update of an eighteenth-century short story (The Lovers , from “No Tomorrow,” by Vivant Denon); or keenly rendering modern classics (Zazie dans le métro, from Raymond Queneau’s novel), Malle appeared to be the kind of director who became “personal” by melding his sensibility with that of a primary author. (Even Elevator to the Gallows comes from a thriller by Noel Calef.)
Yet his best movies pivoted on signature moments of violent or chaotic release—there was always a volatile temperament simmering under that virtuoso surface. After the frolic of Viva Maria! (1965) and the period adaptation The Thief (1966), however, Malle began to worry that he might become a cliché: one more accomplished French director putting out a worthy picture every year. Mentally blocked from tackling, head-on, autobiographical material or incendiary political subjects, yet too antsy and ambitious to settle into complacent professionalism, Malle took an extraordinary step. In 1968, without any set shooting plan or preconceived notions, he journeyed to India with a soundman and a cameraman, submerged himself in the society and the culture, and came out with the material for the theatrical documentary Calcutta (1969) and the seven-part TV series Phantom India (1969). “I think this experience of relying on my instincts was quite decisive in my work,” Malle told Philip French, in the early nineties. “I’ve always tried to rediscover the state of innocence that I found so extraordinary working in India.”
This new reliance on hunch and intuition empowered Malle to reach further down into himself and confront his most intimate concerns. It would take him years to relate, in Au revoir les enfants (1987), the wartime trauma that had haunted him since childhood—the Nazis’ arrest of a Jewish classmate posing as a gentile in Malle’s Catholic boarding school. But starting with Murmur of the Heart, he began operating as an archaeologist of his own heart, putting together insights and observations from every era that he had lived through and exposing his own most personal reactions to fraught or perilous circumstances. The complexity of his portrait of a young French collaborator in World War II, Lacombe, Lucien (1974), derives as much from his earlier, aborted attempt to grapple with his countrymen’s colonial battles in Algiers (in 1962, at age thirty, he spent twenty-four hours in a fortress in east Algeria, then found the subject too incendiary) as it does from his experiences as a boy in occupied France.
What’s remarkable about Malle’s portraits of youth—what allows him to tap bottomless wells of humor and pathos—is that they’re both empathetic and pitiless. Zazie is a one-girl youth movement, as exhausting as she is exhilarating. The movie dares you to keep up with her, and Malle’s artistry transforms it into a happy challenge. Lucien Lacombe swings almost arbitrarily from potential Resistance fighter to collaborator, from coexecutioner to savior of his Jewish lover and her grandmother; we eventually see him as an overgrown feral child. Malle is ruthlessly objective about his alter ego in Au revoir les enfants, right up to the moment when his furtive glance at his Jewish pal reveals the lad’s identity to the Nazis—who, of course, would have caught the poor boy anyway.
Murmur of the Heart offers an unusually full and individualized characterization of a boy whose yearnings, sensitivities, and fantasies outstrip his personality—the sort of unformed figure that creators less bold, candid, or inventive than Malle would never dare to present as their surrogate. The director told French that the setup for Murmur of the Heart was autobiographical: “My passion for jazz, my curiosity about literature, the tyranny of my two elder brothers, how they introduced me to sex—this is pretty close to home. And when I got this heart murmur, the doctors said to my mother, ‘You have to take him to this spa, that’s the best thing you can do.’” For “bizarre” reasons, they did end up sharing the same room. But everything else was invented, including the details of growing up in the 1950s, during the French downfall in Indochina, engendered by Dien Bien Phu. (Malle, of course, grew up in the 1930s and ’40s.)
Still, the atmosphere in Murmur of the Heart is hyperrealistic. It’s seductive and hilarious, as well, because of the warmth and unexpected eccentricity of the moviemaker’s observations. Malle’s fourteen-year-old hero, Laurent (played by Benoît Ferreux), has a taste for Albert Camus that upsets his Catholic schoolteachers and a yen for jazz that helps him bebop to a different drummer. Ferreux offers the perfect image for Laurent: his legs seem too long for his body, and his head too big for it; his expressions of mischief and of petulance, or even rage, are all equally beguiling. The whole movie is built on Laurent’s inchoate nature and the way it makes him, as his adoring mother puts it, unpredictable. Malle doesn’t commit the error of setting him too far apart from the other children in his class, or from his frolicsome older brothers. But the director gets across how Laurent’s imagination imbues him with more vulnerability and awareness, and also more charisma, than the others. (You can see why a little blond boy develops an innocent crush on him.)
A lot of Laurent’s distinctiveness comes out in the writing. Malle hands him lines replete with deadpan derision, and Ferreux delivers them with innocent insouciance—as though he were the first freshman or sophomore to discover the pleasures of the put-down. He’s funny when urging a recalcitrant record-shop owner (from whom he’s just shoplifted) to donate money “for France,” to support the wounded in Indochina. He’s funnier when outraging propriety-obsessed mothers at a spa by telling them that all of their daughters are lesbians, and that one of their sons told him so. But just as much of Laurent’s infectious quality comes from his off-kilter visual impression. His gangling, thin-stemmed coltishness doesn’t quite keep pace with the determined-to-be-cool looks that steal across his shrewd, observant, sometimes bemused face.
Laurent and his brothers mesh with their mother, Clara (Leá Massari), more than they do with their gynecologist father, Dr. Charles Chevalier (Daniel Gélin). The movie rebuts the Father Knows Best caricatures that have pervaded bourgeois pop culture everywhere; Malle knows that, in even the most pretentious families (perhaps in those especially), the wife and servants and sons know Father’s strengths and limitations all too well. The name Dr. Chevalier, with its reference to the lowest rank of the French Legion of Honor, mocks upper-middle-class social aspirations. He’s proud of a Corot he found in the attic; but his eldest sons have it forged, just for the elation of knowing that their old man can’t tell the difference between the original and the copy, which leads to a delicious, heart-stopping practical joke. Yet the father isn’t an ignoble man. He’s just resigned beyond his years.
With the vibrant Massari giving one of the great performances of the seventies, Clara is the character who, along with Laurent, dominates the household and the film. This passionate Italian, who grew up as the daughter of a rebellious father, says she fell for Chevalier because, with a beard, he looked like Garibaldi. She’s got a voracious appetite for sensual pleasure and freedom. She can’t help treating her sons as playmates; when she discovers them filching her money, the result is nothing more serious than a game of monkey-in-the-middle, played in her bedroom, with her as the monkey. When Laurent first discovers that Clara has a lover, he’s stricken. He runs to his father, who shoos him out of the office before he can say anything. With his heart and mind in turmoil, he’s further confused when his brothers pay for his initiation into sex with a friendly, compliant prostitute, and then, in a drunken prank, pull him off prematurely. The murmur of the heart in the title is literally the heart murmur that Laurent develops after a fever, but metaphorically it stands for the way that a sensitive adolescent’s life can seem to skip a beat. (Fittingly, the English title for Jacques Audiard’s engaging remake of James Toback’s seminal Fingers—the tale of an adolescent arrested in extremis—was The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Might Audiard have had Malle in mind, too?) Laurent and Clara move ever closer to each other during his convalescence. They go off to a spa, where they’re forced to share close quarters because of a mistake in booking. They turn from mother and son, or even friends, to soul mates. She recognizes his frustration as he comes on to a couple of pretty young patients, while he gets nearer than he wants to one of her final liaisons with her lover. For mother and son, their inebriated celebration of Bastille Day becomes a time of emotional liberation. They make love in the least incestuous incest scene imaginable. There’s no Bertolucci-like portentousness. Malle doesn’t treat it as a taboo—he ties it too closely to the needs and dreams of a drunken, amorous woman who’s still dizzy from her breakup with her lover, and of a drunken, amorous teenager who has grown to understand the emotional needs behind her adultery. Rather than set off damaging psychic depth charges, the experience gives Laurent an unexpected shot of virility. Almost immediately afterward, he goes on a night prowl for those two girls, and gets lucky with one of them. That’s true to the extroverted spirit of the whole movie. Malle doesn’t merely ridicule the clannishness and cliquishness of middle-class life; he turns those qualities inside out. The home-as-castle conservatism of the father joins with the anything-goes fervor of the mother to give their kids a springboard resilience. When they carry on like spoiled brats, playing “spinach tennis” at the dinner table while their parents are away, or rolling up the rugs for a dance party, they aren’t just being fresh—they’re filling the house with fresh air.
In Murmur of the Heart, Malle’s own zest connects with the knockabout wit and curiosity of his adolescent antiheroes. He sketches even the jokey supporting parts with a satiric sort of sympathy—like the youthful snob Hubert (François Werner), who thinks it’s classy and worldly to defend colonialism. From the fleshy warmth of Ricardo Aronovich’s cinematography to the jazz percolating in Laurent’s brainpan—and, thanks to Malle, in ours—the movie boasts the high spirits to match its high intelligence. Murmur of the Heart is the opposite of a problem comedy about incest. For one thing, incest is not a problem here. Incest is the trapdoor that swings up to reveal the turbulence beneath a cozy way of life—and, in doing so, betrays the growing appetite for candor of a towering twentieth-century artist.
Michael Sragow has been the lead critic of the Baltimore Sun since 2001. He edited the Library of America’s two-volume collection of James Agee’s work and is completing a biography of Victor Fleming for Pantheon.