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3 straight from the heart of director Louis Malle

April 02, 2006|Susan King

3 Films by Louis Malle

(Criterion Collection, $80)

FRANCOIS TRUFFAUT wasn't the only director of the French New Wave who excelled in capturing the trials and tribulations of male adolescence.

Louis Malle also had an uncanny -- and often poetic -- insight into the perils, humor and tragedy that go along with coming of age. And like Truffaut, Malle, who died in 1995, imbued these stories with autobiographical elements.

Murmur of the Heart

Malle's 1971 comedy caused a commotion when it was released because of its incest theme. But the brouhaha quieted down as soon as audiences saw the film. Malle deftly handles the love scene between a mother and her 15-year-old son so that it becomes moving rather than lascivious.

Set in 1954 right after a major loss by the French troops against the Viet Cong forces, "Murmur" revolves around Laurent (Benoit Ferreux), a bright young bookworm who lives in Dijon with his sexy, Italian-born mother (Lea Massari), older staid father (Daniel Gelin) and two older brothers. He's smothered with love by his mother -- who is also having an affair -- ignored by his father and ganged up on by his brothers, who love to play pranks on him.

Laurent is interested in growing up -- he listens to Charlie Parker, smokes cigarettes and is even introduced to sex when his brothers take him to a prostitute one night.

When it's discovered that Laurent has a heart murmur, he and his mother go to a resort over the summer. She goes not just to look after her son but to continue her affair under Laurent's nose, even leaving him for several days to be with her lover. The illicit encounter between mother and son occurs during their resort stay, and Ferreux and Massari beautifully play out the aftermath.

Malle received an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay.

*

Lacombe Lucien

Controversy also surrounded Malle's uncompromising 1974 drama -- one of the first French films to focus on the issue of collaboration by the French with the Germans during World War II.

Pierre Blaise, who was working as a tree trimmer before being discovered by Malle, gives a memorable performance as teenage Lucien, who works as a janitor in a nursing facility and takes a brutal glee in shooting animals in the countryside.

Turned down by the Resistance in his small hometown for being too young, Lucien ends up being recruited by the Gestapo. What leads him to join the German police isn't that he hates Jews or loves the Nazis but that he's naive and gullible. Offered drink, food, a place to stay and nice clothes, Lucien feels important.

Complications arise as Lucien falls in love with the beautiful young daughter of a Jewish tailor -- and when the Resistance targets Lucien for death. (The real-life model for Lucien was arrested and executed.)

Sadly, Blaise was killed in 1975 in a road accident at age 23.

"Lacombe Lucien" was nominated for an Academy Award for foreign-language film.

*

Au revoir, les enfants

This haunting 1987 drama is the most autobiographical of the three films in the collection. Based on a harrowing incident in Malle's own childhood, the film revolves around the friendship between two boys at a provincial Catholic boarding school. Like "Lacombe Lucien," it is set in 1944.

As a semester begins at the school, the head priest enrolls three new students, who are actually Jewish, to hide them from the Nazis. The headmaster hopes that with new names and identities, they will be safe from the concentration camps.

Julien (Gaspard Manesse) -- Malle's cinematic alter-ego -- becomes fast friends with one of the students (Raphael Fejto). But when the Jewish students' secret is discovered by the Nazis, they and the priest are arrested and sent away

The film was considered the favorite to win the foreign film Oscar but was upset by "Babette's Feast."

The supplements: The bonus disc includes a lengthy, informative interview with Malle's biographer Pierre Billard as well as a chat with Malle's widow, Candice Bergen; fascinating excerpts from a French TV program featuring Malle on the sets of "Murmur" and "Lacombe"; three audio interviews with Malle; and the 1917 Charlie Chaplin short, "The Immigrant," which is featured in "Au revoir."

-- Susan King

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