Diverse is the word that springs to mind when glancing through Louis Malle’s filmography. Ranging from existential film noir (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) to zany visual comedy (Zazie dans le Metro), big-budget costume adventure (Viva Maria!) to observational documentary (Place de la republique) – Malle’s body of work defies easy categorization. As Pauline Kael once wrote of him, “The only quality common to the films of Louis Malle is the restless intelligence one senses in them.” Another characteristic one might mention is the director’s fearlessness in tackling controversial subject matter such as adultery (Les Amants), suicide (Le Feu follet), poverty (Phantom India), incest (Le Souffle au coeur), and Nazi collaboration (Lacombe Lucien). This last proved so contentious in France that, soon after, Malle moved to America, where his first film, Pretty Baby, drew further criticism for its portrayal of an underage prostitute. Undeterred he continued working in America, winning acclaim for two unique masterpieces, Atlantic City and My Dinner with Andre, before his triumphant return to French cinema with Au revoir, les enfants.
(The Lovers, 1958)
Unhappy with her husband, and bored with her polo-playing lover, Jeanne Tournier begins an affair with a chance acquaintance. Malle's study of bourgeois emptiness and sexual yearnings was a major succès de scandale at the time of its release and made an international star of Jeanne Moreau.
A provocative and touchingly honest film exploring a 14-year-old boy’s sexual awakening in 1950’s France. To a soundtrack of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, we follow young Laurent as he experiences the tribulations of adolescence and the first intoxicating taste of adult freedom. Malle confounds controversy with bittersweet comedy.
Vanya on 42nd Street
Beginning in 1989, theatre director Andre Gregory conducted a theatrical experiment in a rundown theatre in New York in which he assembled a group of friends and actors to rehearse and perform a contemporary version of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Malle’s intimate, enthralling film of the event shifts imperceptibly between real life and theatre as what appears at first a rather chaotic run-through, grows into a superb performance of Chekhov’s classic meditation on ennui, the trials of love and the sadness of life.
Ascenseur pour l’échafaud
(Elevator to the Gallows, 1958)
Malle’s stylish debut feature combines the influence of Robert Bresson and Alfred Hitchcock in a classic noir story of passion, murder and betrayal. Featuring captivating performances by Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as doomed lovers, atmospheric cinematography by Henri Decae, and a remarkably soulful score by Miles Davis.
In Malle’s best-known English language film, Burt Lancaster gives one of the greatest performance of his career as Lou, an aging small-town mobster whose romanticized reminiscences of his part in Atlantic City’s infamous past become reality when he becomes the guardian angel to troubled waitress and would-be croupier Sally (Susan Sarandon). This subtle and wistful portrait of human folly and redemption won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1980, received five Academy Awards nominations, and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
L'Inde Fantome / Calcutta
(Phantom India / Calcutta, 1969)
Frustrated by the film business in France in the late 60s, Malle took off to India with a two-man crew and for the next six months filmed everything of interest that he encountered. The result is this unforgettable six-hour immersive documentary portrait of a country of seemingly infinite variety and experience. While editing his footage, Malle decided to cut a separate, more impressionistic film focusing on the city of Calcutta – once the cultural centre of the country, but by 1968, impoverished and divided.
Lucien Lacombe is an 18-year-old farm-boy in rural France during World War II who becomes a collaborating member of the Gestapo when his attempt to join the Resistance is turned down. Avoiding easy psychological interpretations, Malle instead allows the story to unfold in all its moral complexity. The film provoked a storm of controversy in France for its less than heroic portrayal of the French people under occupation, but elsewhere its brilliance was recognised, winning the British Academy Award for Best Film of 1974.
My Dinner With Andre
Playwright Wallace Shawn meets theatre director Andre Gregory in a New York restaurant and, over dinner, listens spellbound as his old friend relates the series of extraordinary experiences he’s been through in a quest to find meaning in his life. Thirty years after it was made, this inspired collaboration between Malle and the two leads remains as original, funny, thought-provoking and moving as when first released. Deceptively simple, yet masterfully directed, this is a film one can return to again and again and always discover something new.
Au revoir les enfants
(Goodbye Children, 1987)
Set in a boys’ boarding school during the Nazi occupation of France, the story follows the close friendship that develops between Julien and new arrival Jean, a Jewish refugee being sheltered at the school by the compassionate headmaster. Betrayal leads to discovery and heartbreaking loss. Based on events from Malle’s own childhood, this - the most personal of his films - was met with universal acclaim, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and seven Césars in his home country.
Le Feu Follet
(The Fire Within, 1963)
A melancholic study of a self-destructive writer who resolves to kill himself and spends the next twenty-four hours trying to reconnect with a host of wayward friends. Maurice Ronet gives an outstanding performance as Alain, who has spent his life “waiting for something to happen”, but refuses to accept the compromises of adulthood. A haunting masterpiece that strikes at the heart of what it is to be human.