He got his start only slightly ahead of Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, et al.—sharing the Palme d’Or at age 23 with Jacques Cousteau for The Silent World (1956)—but Louis Malle generally doesn’t make the nouvelle vague roll call, for any number of reasons. Malle himself rejected the designation (“It would be absurd to class together the new auteurs,” he said in 1959); his thematic and stylistic versatility, and perhaps his enormous family fortune, may have lent themselves to facile assumptions of dilettantism; and his early professional associations leaned heavily rightward. Raymond Borde in Les Temps Modernes declared Malle’s first fiction feature, Elevator to the Gallows (1957; see review), “un film fasciste,” but its predominant political sentiment is simply a curdled disgust with French society at large, as Malle slowly tightens a multi-strand knot of adultery and cash-motivated murder in which all the players more or less get what’s coming to them.
Paced to the melancholy saunter of its Miles Davis soundtrack, Elevator facilitates a fluid transition between French post-war noir and Godard’s breathless outsiders, and it credits Malle with the cinema’s first epiphanic recognition of Jeanne Moreau’s face—her bruised, skeptical beauty floods the screen in the bracing first shot, and her pre-orgasmic close-up in 1958’s The Lovers (a film Truffaut praised as “the detailed story of lightning striking”) helped spark an obscenity trial and Potter Stewart’s famous exegesis of porn detection: “I know it when I see it.” The claustrophobic ennui diagnosed in The Lovers deepens into intractable despair in the elegiac, Satie-scored The Fire Within (1963), wherein recovering alcoholic Alain (Maurice Ronet, as in Elevator a portrait of desiccated boyishness) decides to kill himself, then takes a humiliating farewell tour of his old Parisian friends and haunts that reinforces his decision at every turn.
Would you know a Louis Malle film when you saw it? The Fire Within would seem to share no genetic material with his New Waviest Zazie in the Metro (1960), a whirling dervish steeped in primary colors that chases a toilet-tongued brat all over an anarchic pomo Paris. Malle’s wingspan also covered ethnographic documentaries (the six-and-a-half-hour
Phantom India, And the Pursuit of Happiness), regional picaresques (Atlantic City, Crackers), sexual provocations (Pretty Baby, his first American film; Damage), and evenings with Andre Gregory (My Dinner With Andre, Vanya on 42nd Street). In the latter two films, Malle nearly achieves invisibility; elsewhere hisself-effacing method could border on equivocation, which meant he was at his best observing minds and bodies in uncertain transition, as in Lacombe, Lucien (1974), in which a peasant kid’s inchoate adolescent energies are harnessed for fascist collaboration—a pact revisited in Malle’s autobiographical Oscar nominee Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987). And in the blithely scandalous Rushmore antecedent Murmur of the Heart (1971), a Camus-reading, jazz-adoring 14-year-old discovers a brief, perfect marriage of his burgeoning sexuality and the cuddly tendresse of childhood in, quite understandably, his mother’s arms.