Louis Malle created a world of exquisite privilege on film. And then he took it away.
February 1996
By Jesse Green

A RICH OLD WOMAN IN THE SOUTH of France stands weeping in her kitchen as the radio reports news of the 1968 Paris uprisings. Is it her grandson, a radical student there, she's weeping for? No, we discover as the camera pulls back. She's chopping onions. 

In the restless, ambivalent world of director Louis Malle, every action contains the seeds of its own reversal. The unsentimental grandmother appears in the opening scene of May Fools; she is the living embodiment of the precept that all politics is local. She is also the embodiment of a Malle technique I noticed for the first time when I paid homage to the French director, who died last November, by watching fifteen of his more than two dozen movies. Here's what I learned: Malle giveth, and taketh away. The screams of pleasure that open Pretty Baby turn out to be screams of parturition. The Irish lass playing with string at the start of Viva Maria is really a terrorist; the string is a fuse. And why should that surprise us? Life's awful but it's also cheery, and this is a musical.

Viva Maria, released in 1965, wasn't Malle's worst movie; that distinction may belong to one of his later, American efforts: the witless caper Crackers or the dully earnest Alamo Bay. But it certainly was his oddest, a kind of I Love Lucy meets La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc in revolutionary Central America. Satire was not, after all, a Malle strength. You can't even tell what he's satirizing: widescreen musicals, shoot‑'em‑up westerns, the politics of despots or of liberators. One of the things you come to love in Malle's movies is the almost perfect avoidance of politics, at least as an overt subject; you're grateful that he abandoned political science, in favor of cinema, when he left the Sorbonne in 1951. For the most part, good guys and bad guys do not appear as such in his movies, because everyone, in his vision, is both. In a Malle film, incest might be a wonderful thing, and even a Nazi can have a sense of humor.

But it will hardly do to speak of Malle's vision; better to say his visions. An early, intoxicating French romance like The Lovers has little except immense skill in common with Vanya on 42nd Street, the uncanny Chekhov adaptation that was his final film. Indeed, other than a few noir‑ish thrillers, like Elevator to the Gallows and The Thief of Paris, no two Malle movies belong to the same genre, or, for that matter, to any genre. If this has made his imprint less immediately identifiable than that of such countrymen (and contemporaries) as Truffaut and Godard, it served his purpose. To watch the output of his 38 years as a filmmaker is to be surprised over and over again by the different kinds of life that interested him, and by the ingenuity with which he got out of the way of his camera. Often he got so far out of the way he virtually disappeared: When I'd ask people to name their favorite Malle movies, most had trouble remembering which were his in the first place. I'd list a few of the famous ones: Murmur of the Heart; Lacombe, Lucien; Pretty Baby; Atlantic City; My Dinner With Andre; Au Revoir les enfants. "Oh yes," they'd say after hearing each title. "Was that by him too?"

What kind of movie is it that appears not to have been made by anyone? Take My Dinner With Andre‑the famously strange filmed conversation between theater director Andre Gregory and actor‑playwright Wallace Shawn. Over a meal of quail and pâté, Gregory blathers on for almost two hours about the end of humanity, the fatuity of art, Helen the refrigerator, and the largest cauliflower ever. His spiritual quest has led him to the conclusion that everything is hopeless. Shawn provides the counterpoint, in a brilliant speech about ordinary pleasures: the coffee cup with no cockroach in it, the electric blanket, Charlton Heston's memoirs. It's unlikely this dinner would seem so exhilarating if you actually had to sit through it in person, but with exquisite taste and a limited palette, Malle creates something that is more than the sum of the two men's stories. As often as not, we see the face of the man who's listening, not talking: This is a portrait of the way people change each other, and the ways they never can.

SCENES FROM A MALLE: What you get from even his most chaste movies is a pornography of feeling. Above: on the San Francisco set of Crackers (1984), with Andre's dinner partner, Wallace Shawn.

If Malle leaves no bold, unchanging signa­ture upon his work, that's because he is so deeply involved in his material that he does not need to show his hand. He is instead the considerate, discreet, but unblinking eye. That eye is sometimes taken to be a voyeur's; people are always spying on each other's private activities in Malle's movies, and the camera does it too. The Lovers includes a famous sex scene, once thought scandalous, that manages, without moving from Jeanne Moreau's implacably sad face, to be breathtakingly erotic. For its depiction of a child prostitute, Pretty Baby was banned in Canada, and Damage, even in its R‑rated version, is so explicit it's numbing (which may be the point). But Malle is just as explicit about emotion; what you really get from even his most chaste films is a pornography of feeling. In My Dinner With Andre, Shawn utters what could be Malle's credo: "I sometimes think that my secret profession is that I'm a private investigator, a detective. I always enjoy finding out about people, even if they're in absolute agony."

It seems ridiculous at this late date to have to argue that a movie depicting child prostitution or incest ‑even lovingly‑ isn't advocating them. But people who like their art political have never liked Malle: He's too forgiving. And people who like their forgiveness simple don't like Malle either: He's too regretful. Since most of us are neither politicians nor simpletons, this moral balancing act feels about right. The key word in Malle's world is sympathy‑and not just for such obvious un­derdogs as a Jewish boy in occupied France or a Vietnamese fisherman on the South Texas coast. Almost unique among modern filmmakers, Malle is sympathetic to the rich as well: He does not condescend to them, or mock (too much) their disappointments. In May Fools it's an haut bourgeois clan gathering to divide their matriarch's estate; they're rapacious and idiotic and touching by turns. In Vanya on 42nd Street it's the bickering relatives of a pompous professor, withering away from vodka and boredom. And in The Lovers it's the pampered wife of a wealthy editor who shocks herself by falling in love, leaving him and their child all in one night.

These are stories only a rich man would dare to tell on film; Malle's family was one of the wealthiest in France, its fortune derived from sugar. For this, some have called him an apologist ‑and it's true that he often revels in the solid houses and beautiful things that wealth makes possible: the Baccarat crystal, the Brahms intermezzo. But the view through his camera is physically ravishing when he explores the extremes of poverty too, as he did in the nonfiction series Phantom India. I still remember, from grade school, the haunting oddness of The Silent World, the underwater documentary he made with Jacques Cousteau, in which he managed to make even emptiness look burnished. Do the wealthy deserve less? When a shark is beautiful, who is to gainsay a fetching hairstyle? Malle remembers what some of his more didactic colleagues forget: that the world must not be lost in the saving. When the dreams of the privileged come crashing down, who will care about Baccarat, who will listen to Brahms?

FLEURS DE MALLE: The 1980 wedding of Malle and Candice Bergen at his home in southwestern France (above).

A man with less taste and money could never have shown us what Malle did: that taste and money are good, but not good enough. The Fire Within demonstrates this dilemma at its end‑stage, telling the story of an aging playboy who, ruined by his exquisite sensibilities, has nothing left to connect with and kills himself by default. All the fine ideas and champagne in the world could not teach him how to ease his own suffering, let alone anyone else's. It's harrowing, but to see the same realization dawn on a fourteen‑year‑old boy ‑in the autobiographical Au Revoir les enfants ‑is even worse. Wrapped in a cocoon of entitlement and at the same time of injury, Julien (that is, Malle) engages in acts of petty black marketeering that eventually result in a hideous betrayal. It's easy to say that a boy who smuggles jam into a Carmelite boarding school during the Nazi occupation cannot be blamed for his friend's death a few years later at Auschwitz, but this is a nicety from which neither Julien nor Malle can take solace. Regret lingers so heavily over the movie, and all Malle movies, that it begins to seem like a comfort of sorts: the friend who survived.

"I found the treasure," Julien sobs upon returning half‑frozen from a game in the woods, "but everyone had vanished!" That's the Malle story. Over and over he shows us people destroying their dreams in the process of inhabiting them. For me, it's a paradox most clearly rendered in Malle's first American film, Pretty Baby. Though much criticized as immoral or, worse, as artless, Pretty Baby is in fact a profound meditation on the conflicts between morality and art. When Keith Carradine (as New Orleans photographer Ernest J. Bellocq) falls in love with a child prostitute (notoriously played by eleven‑year‑old Brooke Shields), it's not the romance itself that disturbs, but your complicity in desiring it. The experience of watching the movie -charmed by the Storyville characters, mesmerized by the milieu‑ mimics the experience of falling in love against your better judgment. You are only, finally, brought up short when Susan Sarandon, as Shields's newly respectable mother, returns to fetch the girl from Carradine and transplant her into a proper middle‑class home. At this moment you actually feel the hot shame of the untenable liaison come rushing at you, even as you realize that the transplant will be a failure. When her new stepfather tries to take her photograph, Shields only knows one way to smile: salaciously.

Pretty Baby may not be Malle's best film, but it's prototypical. Within a familiar cinematic milieu (in this case a picturesque brothel, but elsewhere a gated monastery or a tasteful family manse) an unexpectedly beautiful world arises, based to some degree on denial and hidden cruelties but beautiful nonetheless. This world is painted with loving affection ‑its daily rhythms, its eccentricities- and is almost stupendously warm and appealing. Then, just when you're thinking you'd like to live there, those hidden cruelties come out of hiding, conflict ensues, and the beautiful world collapses under the shifting pressures of reality. The brothel is done in by meddlesome moralists, casinos replace the grand old hotels, the gestapo appears at the gates of the monastery. What follows is always the same sad story: exile from the dream.

That dream, for Malle, is generally associated with youth or forbidden love or both, but he doesn't rail against the world's prerogatives. He seems to welcome clumsy fate with a shrug, as the prostitutes welcome even their most unprepossessing clients. If dreamers must be rudely awakened ‑the hypnotic song "Beautiful Dreamer" is heard repeatedly on the Pretty Baby soundtrack‑ what's to be done? The price of good taste is to experience its absence; the price of having loved anything is to miss it when it's gone. But Malle's resignation to fate cannot be taken as sangfroid. The beautiful dream always returns to haunt the dreamer, this time as a torment. In Murmur of the Heart, a boy is initiated by the fulfillment of his incest fantasy into the slightly sinister but, after all, real world of men; his father and older brothers laugh conspiratorially (or is it enviously?) at their pale new conscript. That scary laughter, Shields's dangerous smile, the last glance of the lost boy in Au Revoir les enfants: The beautiful dream melts down to these breathtakingly potent ‑and indelible‑ spots of regret.

Voyeurs are by definition insatiable. Over the thing that fate forbids them they exact the only victory possible: to look at it over and over. Malle made an art of it, mastering the devastating moment of loss by rendering it ever more elegant and spare. He himself was elegant and spare. He was fully aware of the political winds blowing through his time; they just didn't inspire him. His eye was not on large grudges but on small accommodations. That's why some people found his work shallow: all that Baccarat, all that Brahms. For the rest of us that's exactly what made his movies move: He forgives what finally cannot be helped. Which may not be how you start a revolution but, if you care about love, it's how you get through the day.

Jesse Greens most recent article for PREMIERE, "The Bug," appeared in February 1995.