Eclipse Series 2:The Documentaries of Louis Malle



Deservedly celebrated for the astonishingly diverse array of narrative features he made over a nearly forty-year career, Louis Malle was in fact even more multifaceted than this body of work suggests. For alongside such well-known, and disparate, dramas as the cool noir Elevator to the Gallows (1958), the erudite My Dinner with Andre (1981), and the heartbreaking, autobiographical Au revoir les enfants (1987), this masterful director quietly sustained a parallel career in nonfiction film, which both informed and stood counterpoint to his more mainstream fare. Malle, indeed, started out in documentary: at age twenty-three, when he was a film student, he was asked by undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau to collaborate on the nature film The Silent World. This auspicious debut went on to win both the 1956 Cannes Palme d’or and the 1957 best documentary Oscar. Malle handled much of the underwater cinematography himself, with the searching, inquisitive nature that would become the trademark of his greatest investigatory works.

He didn’t return to documentary until 1962, when, after the critical failure of his film Vie privée, he grabbed a camera and for four months shot footage amid the violence in Algeria. Though he never edited it together, the experience persuaded him to reenter, as he called it, “the real world.” That same year, he took a small crew to observe the Tour de France and ended up with the quick-cutting, energetic short Vive le Tour, a commemoration of his country’s most watched sporting event as well as a personal reflection on one of his favorite pastimes. Malle later called Vive le Tour a “happy experience,” but it was only after he undertook the epic Phantom India, in 1968, that he established his documentary philosophy, adopting certain tenets of cinéma direct—improvisation, minimal crew, the refusal to organize reality—and applying them to a fairly consistently class-conscious, outsider perspective.

He first used this method on his own countrymen, with Humain, trop humain (Human, All Too Human, 1973), turning his lens on the inner workings of the Citroën auto factory in Rennes, Brittany. Malle—brought up in an industrial area in northern France, albeit in affluence—focuses on the faces and bodies of the assembly liners with great empathy, emphasizing, through sheer duration, the intense, monotonous labor required to bring the sparkling new cars to the public (Malle interrupts the film’s incessant gaze on the workers’ toil only once, pointedly, to show us consumers at a Paris motor show). Malle eschews narration in this film, creating an almost poetic evocation of labor.

In his next film, Place de la République (1974), Malle takes a more direct approach to the lives of working people, simply training the camera and microphone on anyone who happens to stroll by one short stretch of sidewalk in a working-class neighborhood of Paris. Malle asks them questions about themselves and playfully comments on the camera’s role in the film. The result is a surprisingly penetrating examination of the very real, material factors that affect people’s happiness. Money, race, religion, sex—they’re all there in this elegant experiment, which embodies the curious, compassionate sensibility that informed all of Malle’s films, and especially his documentaries.


Despite all of the awards, financial success, and international prestige that came from his career in fiction filmmaking, Louis Malle said late in his life that it was his massive 1969 documentary Phantom India that he was most proud of, and that was his most personal endeavor. Epic in scope and intellectual in depth, this seven-part portrait of India is an investigation into the country’s sociopolitical landscape, traditions, and people, as well as a furthering of Malle’s self-discovery as a nonfiction filmmaker.

Malle, as he later recounted, was in a personal and professional crisis after shooting the jewel-thief caper Le voleur, in 1967—he had just divorced his first wife, and he felt artistically uninspired. This was exacerbated by the negative experience he then had making the short “William Wilson” for the omnibus film Spirits of the Dead (1967), during which he and star Alain Delon were at terrible odds. He needed an escape from both the routine of narrative filmmaking and France itself.

Fortuitously, in late 1967, Malle was asked by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to go to India to present a selection of “new French cinema” throughout the country. And there, the seeds of the two-year undertaking that would become Phantom India were planted. Malle ended up staying for two months rather than the intended two weeks, as he grew more and more fascinated with the place: its contradictions, its ambiguities, its unwritten yet firmly entrenched social rules. He felt very much like an outsider, a perspective he enjoyed and nurtured throughout his career, and was intrigued by his inability to comprehend his new surroundings, no matter how much he tried. Soon after he returned to France, he decided to go back to India, in early 1968, with a crew of two (Étienne Becker on 16mm camera and Jean-Claude Laureux recording sound): if he could harness on film the various beauties and puzzlements of India, then perhaps he could work through his own misconceptions about a place so far from his Western understanding. He began this undertaking, he maintained, without a plan or fixed ideological concerns, an approach in keeping with cinéma direct, what Malle called “a cinema of instinct, of improvisation, a cinema very much of the present.”

Malle went not only without a script or even lighting equipment but with no advance distribution agreements; this was an entirely personal, independently financed project. Malle states early in the film that he intends to capture life as it’s lived, without intervention. The lack of a set mise-en-scène at first perturbed Becker; the cinematographer, who had worked on such films as Chris Marker’s documentary Le joli mai and would go on to shoot Jacques Rivette’s L’amour fou, wasn’t used to foregrounding the camera’s presence, and he was disconcerted that the locals would at times look directly into the apparatus. Yet Malle convinced him that this was the most honest approach. Malle’s narration, while a departure from the dictates of more traditional cinéma direct, nevertheless feels equally honest in its constant self-appraisal; as in Place de la République (1974), Malle becomes a side character, interrogating his own status as filmmaker and all the intimidation that goes with that role (he admits in voice-over that the “camera is a weapon”).

The film avoids the more touristy locales of India (the Taj Mahal doesn’t make so much as a cameo). And Malle refused to tell his story strictly through the voices of the anglicized Indian middle class and elite, who accounted for only 1 percent of their country’s population yet often spoke for them all. Instead, Malle said, he wanted to find something truer, less rote about India’s people, culture, and landscape. And though much of the film’s soundtrack is laid over with his explications of the socioeconomic implications of what we’re seeing and, at times, his own ideas, he states that he wants the images to “speak for themselves.” It’s a battle of wills between pure ethnography and the essay film, which he handles with the utmost sensitivity and respect for his subjects.

Divided into seven sections, Phantom India investigates, discretely yet often with intuitive overlap, India’s caste system, entertainments, religious traditions, tribal outcasts, and political and economic future. As only 2 percent of the population spoke English (a remnant of British colonization, which officially ended in 1947), most of the film’s subjects are not able to directly address the camera. Without a translator for the many different languages and dialects spoken throughout the country, Phantom India relies on images and Malle’s interpretations. Yet Malle never comes across as an oppressive presence, and he captures a stunningly wide spectrum of life—from the impoverished villages of marginalized tribes that have stuck unerringly to tradition (such as the Bondo and the Toda) to the bustling, industrialized economic capital of Bombay—all with a calming, deliberate pace and an unobtrusiveness that gives the sense of life simply unfolding. Malle’s camera is languorous, spending expanses of time on diligent dance students training to carry on the tradition of India’s graceful “mother dance,” the Bharatanatyam, and on villagers purifying themselves in the filthy water outside temples in the deep south, among many other subjects. Still, despite his claims to the contrary, Malle is hardly the unbiased observer: in surveying India’s complex social fabric, he regularly decries how the caste system, never written on paper yet implicit in every aspect of daily life all over the country, is used to create a capitalist hierarchy of labor exploitation—an extension of his fascination with the travails of his own country’s working class.

After five months of shooting, it took a year to cut Phantom India together into a cohesive narrative, down from thirty hours of footage to the resulting 363 minutes. Malle then struck a deal with French television to air the film as a miniseries. Though a success in his homeland, when the film was broadcast a couple of years later on the BBC, it was met with forceful opposition from England’s Indian population, a reaction that surprised Malle greatly. The community of anglicized Indians felt the film misrepresented their country, focusing too much on beggars, poverty, and political unrest and ignoring the economic advancements and the more powerful middle class. Malle’s name consequently became somewhat notorious in India, even though the film was never shown there.

“I believe what you see first in those films is my admiration for Indian culture and religion,” Malle later stated. At the time, the future of India’s economy and political identity was in question, with the instability of the international marketplace and the country’s extreme poverty and struggles to modernize. Ultimately, Malle was less interested in appeasing those in positions of power than in examining both the dwindling resources and the strong traditions of a country that to him, and to many Westerners, remained bafflingly complex. Malle said in 1993: “It was enormously important for me, and I’m still trying to make sense of it today.”



When Louis Malle returned to France after five months of shooting in India, it was May 1968, and the country had exploded into chaos. The student revolt had turned into a general strike all over Paris, and everything, including the film labs where Malle was planning to work, was closed. It was certainly ironic: while Malle was capturing images that would paint a socioeconomic portrait of a faraway land, he was cut off from the political realities of his own country. “I hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on in Paris,” he recalled, “and after those enchanted months of drifting around India, I was very reluctant to come home. I was simply going to refuel, look at my footage, and go back.”

Instead, Malle found himself caught up in the country’s political whirlwind. One of the more commercially popular of the French new wavers, after such films as Zazie dans le métro (1960) and Le feu follet (1963), Malle had been tapped to be a juror at the Cannes Film Festival. But, goaded on by his friends François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, he helped persuade his fellow jurors to call off the festival—in solidarity with the strikers and to protest French culture minister André Malraux’s firing of the beloved Cinémathèque française programmer Henri Langlois—even making the announcement himself. With such distractions, it was weeks before he and his editor, Suzanne Baron, saw their India footage. And when they did, they found there was just too much that they wanted to keep from his three weeks in Calcutta. So they decided to edit it into a separate feature.

The most striking difference between Phantom India and Calcutta (both 1969) is in the pacing: whereas the former is made up of unhurried, contemplative passages, the latter is a straightforward plunge into a nightmarish world of poverty, sickness, and political turmoil. Calcutta surveys, with ceaseless movement, the myriad desperations of this West Bengali capital city, from its swarming streets and bridges to its shantytowns and filthy back alleys. Like Bombay, the port town of Calcutta was built by the English for colonial needs—and after Great Britain’s departure, widespread violence and famine led to the city’s stagnation. Malle unflinchingly explores the slums, where 40 percent of the population lives, and where animal excrement contaminates the water and piles of uncollected garbage block the streets. But he doesn’t just witness these conditions; he also critiques the class structures that help perpetuate the misery: from the exorbitant tenement rates demanded by landowners to the indifferent upper classes, shown whiling away the hours at the racetrack and the Royal Calcutta Golf Club.

As with Phantom India, the film was criticized for focusing only on the city’s misery, yet Malle intended this snapshot of a tumultuous place and time to provoke and shock. Though his next fiction films—Murmur of the Heart (1972) and Lacombe, Lucien (1974)—would bring him back to his homeland, his experience as an outsider in India would inform all of his subsequent work, especially his dispatches from another unfamiliar new outpost: America.



After the cathartic experience of Phantom India (1969), Louis Malle vowed to devote more time to documentary work, which he felt could more purely evoke the present. Thus in between the fictional past of Murmur of the Heart (1972) and the fantasy world of Black Moon (1975) he undertook two contemporary French documentary features, Humain, trop humain (1973) and Place de la République (1974). And he continued to alternate between nonfiction and narrative when he relocated to the United States, in 1975, to direct Pretty Baby. In the spring of 1979, he was approached by PBS to make a documentary about America, on a subject of his choosing. Malle agreed and eagerly trekked out to Minneapolis, with the intention of investigating his latest fascination: the indoor shopping mall. When that idea fell through (partly because of the echoing of the malls’ incessant Muzak, which Malle detested), he ended up searching for a bit of “America’s heartland.”

About sixty miles west of Minneapolis, Malle came upon Glencoe, Minnesota, a friendly little farming community with a population of five thousand, 80 percent of German origin. The heavily accented Frenchman is greeted with curiosity but general warmth by the townspeople, even as they show a slight distrust of this stranger—especially when he asks them why there are no black or visible gay communities in Glencoe. Yet Malle burrows beneath the fairs and bingo nights to get past the stereotypes of the narrow Midwesterner and, in interviewing a wide array of locals, discovers some hidden cultural vibrancy (there’s even a progressive theater group, staging a play titled Much Ado About Corn) and openness of thought, as well as the lingering pain and divisiveness of Vietnam’s legacy, illustrated both by disillusioned war veterans and parents of former protestors.

The great challenge of a documentary like God’s Country is that it’s set in a town where, ostensibly, “nothing happens.” Yet through his camera, Malle becomes something of a late-twentieth-century Alexis de Tocqueville, looking with admiration and fascination at a way of life almost as foreign to him as India’s. In August 1985, after PBS had taken years to raise the funding to edit the film, Malle returned, camera in tow, to see what had become of Glencoe. And six years on, he finds much more than a drastic change in hairdos: the economic recession and farming crisis of the Reagan era have taken their toll on this once prosperous community.

Thus God’s Country comes to follow from Malle’s earlier documentaries in its evocation of working-class desperation. And in its use of the camera as a confessional tool, it goes even further than Place de la République—most vividly in Malle’s interview, during his first visit, with the twentysomething office worker who says she feels trapped by her town’s bigotry and provincialism. “There was something about her, because she was looking at the camera, which made it a lot more intimate and disturbing,” Malle later said of this woman, whose darting eyes are reminiscent of the girl caught in Humain, trop humain’s final freeze-frame. Upon returning in 1985, Malle discovered that this “Madame Bovary of Glencoe” had left for Florida, perhaps to find greener pastures.



After shooting the early part of God’s Country (1985), Malle continued to explore current realities in America, immediately turning to one of his greatest successes and most widely seen American films, the grittily textured Atlantic City (1980). Though he once stated that he saw documentary as the best way to deal with the here and now, Malle’s eighties output was greatly balanced in favor of fictional depictions of contemporary life this side of the Atlantic: his adaptation of Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory’s New York story My Dinner with Andre (1981); Crackers (1983), set in San Francisco’s impoverished Mission District; and Alamo Bay (1985), about a Vietnamese refugee living in a racist Texas town. Malle’s work on this last film, and the fact that he himself was an immigrant living in America, influenced him in making his next and final documentary, . . . And the Pursuit of Happiness (1986), a project commissioned by HBO on the occasion of the centenary of the Statue of Liberty. Yet when Malle was approached, he insisted that he wanted to look not back at those who had come to the United States via Ellis Island, at the turn of the century, but rather at the situation of recent immigrants.

Malle has acknowledged that . . . And the Pursuit of Happiness was thus different from his other documentaries, which did not originate from set goals but rather from a simple desire to record reality and cull an idea from the resulting footage. Here Malle set out to locate specific communities and enclaves, and to ask them pointed questions about their experiences as immigrants and their sense of identity and homeland. He interviewed a wide swath of new citizens, mostly of Asian and South American origin—representative of immigration at that time—from a wide variety of backgrounds: Cambodian refugees arriving at JFK airport unable to speak English, a Pakistani schoolteacher-turned–Elizabeth Arden salesperson, an Ethiopian cabdriver, a Costa Rican NASA astronaut, a Vietnamese family practitioner living and working in Nebraska, an El Salvadoran family seeking political asylum, and West Indian poet Derek Walcott, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize. What he discovered, despite all the tensions in the country over border control and immigration restrictions, was an inspiring optimism and sense of pride at being new Americans.

Malle’s interest in immigration sprang in part from his self-identification as an outsider, recounted at length in Phantom India (1969) and evoked in Humain, trop humain (1973), during the making of which Malle discovered that the majority of workers at many automotive plants around Paris were immigrants. Malle’s alignment with the displaced was compounded by his relocation to America. He later said, “I felt strongly all the way through my stay in America that I should not become an American director.” . . . And the Pursuit of Happiness is the perfect tribute to his lifelong desire to stand outside and observe, and a fitting end to his career in nonfiction filmmaking. It’s a look at the changing face of America from a director who himself never stopped evolving.

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