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The Obscure Talent Of Louis Malle

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Seventeen years after his death, the legendary French filmmaker remains an essential voice on freedom of speech and self-expression.

Louis Malle was one of those increasingly rare things in the world of cinema – a director who did his own thing and seldom if ever worried about what others thought of him or his work. The Frenchman, who would have turned 80 this month, made a career out of going against the grain – his eclectic films were frequently controversial, always thought-provoking and never dull.

During a career which spanned over 40 years, and a range which encompassed such diverse subjects as documentaries, crime comedies and romantic dramas, Malle proved that the true calling of a filmmaker is to make the viewer think, laugh and most of all enjoy the celebration of life with all its multifarious facets.

As with many people Malle’s background and upbringing clearly had a strong influence on his work, and may help bring better understanding to his lasting cinematic influence and legacy. It may also help explain his apparent ambivalence towards controversy and other people’s attitudes to his work which was to colour many of the films he went on to make.

Born into a wealthy industrial family in Thumeries in northern France, Malle studied political science at the Sciences-Po, before changing course to take up film studies at the IDHEC (the French state film school) in Paris. His background of privilege and interest in politics can clearly be seen in his approach to filmmaking both in the often sensitive subject matter of his work as well as his devil-may-care attitude to the wider commerciality of many of his films.

The early years of a filmmaker’s career often have the most lasting effect as this is usually when their style and recognisable traits are honed. Malle was no exception. It helped, of course, that his mentor happened to be one of the great documentary filmmakers, Jacques Cousteau.

The first major film which Malle was to work on, and one which showed his blossoming interest in what was to become his lifelong fascination with documentary filmmaking, was Cousteau’s award winning The Silent World (1956). The film, co-directed by Cousteau and Malle and which won Cousteau his first Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, not only helped to establish Malle as a bone-fide director but also set several records in other areas as well.

Among the first films to use underwater cinematography to show the ocean depths in colour, Le Monde du Silence was the only documentary film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, until Michael Moore did it again in 2004 and Fahrenheit 9/11. Malle then went on to assist director Robert Bresson on A Man Escaped (1956), a film based on the memoirs of the French Resistance fighter André Devigny, before making his debut feature Lift to the Scaffold (1957).

This Hitchcock-esque film made when he was only 24, would again introduce Malle to a genre with which he would become closely associated, this time thrillers, during his later career. Lift to the Scaffold would also have a lasting effect on film fans everywhere by introducing them to the actress Jeanne Moreau, and making her an international star in the process.

Though his work did not directly correspond with the nouvelle vague (French New Wave) which was influential during the early years of his career several of Malle’s films, such as Lift to the Scaffold and later Zazie in the Metro (1960), used many of its characteristics, including the use of natural light and locations for shooting, leading to him often being linked with the movement. Indeed, praise from one of nouvelle vague’s founders François Truffaut, did little to dispel this impression of Malle’s work in the eyes of the wider cinema going public.

It is perhaps the controversies however which persistently dogged Malle’s professional life, that had most effect on his lasting reputation as a filmmaker. His apparent propensity to tackle questionable subject matter highlighted the ambivalence Malle felt to public opinion and which as a result gave him the freedom to make films he felt strongly about without the constraints often placed subconsciously or otherwise on filmmakers.

Made when Malle was just 25, The Lovers (1958) was a landmark film, due to its sexually explicit subject concerning an adulterous woman who rediscovers human love. A smash hit on its initial release in France, the film won the Special Jury Prize at the 1958 Venice Film Festival. More importantly however, and in an incident which would forever associate Malle’s name with freedom of speech, the film’s alleged depiction of obscene material led to a landmark ruling by the US Supreme Court concerning the legal definition of ‘obscenity’ when the film was released in America.

Where such controversy may have destroyed a lesser man’s confidence, it appeared to have the opposite effect with Malle, goading him on to deal with ever more debatable topics. The Fire Within (1963) dealt with a man contemplating suicide, whilst Murmur Of The Heart (1971) took the incestuous relationship between a mother and her son as its subject matter.  Perhaps for a Frenchman it was the essence of Lacombe, Lucien (1974), which Malle cowrote with the award-winning French novelist Patrick Modiano, that seemed most out-of-place.

Even so the choice of Nazi collaboration in the French town of Vichy during World War II as subject-matter didn’t seem to hurt Malle’s international reputation, with Vincent Canby of the New York Times saying, "Lacombe, Lucien is easily Mr Malle's most ambitious, most provocative film."

However the debate and passions surrounding Malle’s work were not confined to the world of film and those who watch or discuss them.  As a result of his seven part documentary series Phantom India (1968) made for the BBC, and the documentary film Calcutta (1969) which received a general cinema release, Malle fell foul of the Indian government, through what it saw as his unfavorable portrayal of India and focus on the country’s premodern rituals and festivals.

His spreading influence and lasting impact on culture and freedom of speech on a wider basis could be seen by the BBC being banned from filming in India for several years as a result of making Phantom India. Clearly though, the political debate surrounding the film did not greatly concern Malle as he always claimed the documentary was his favorite piece of work.

Inevitably success brought Malle to the attention of Hollywood. If his early career in French and European cinema shaped his filmic style, it was his later years in America which produced the work that brought his name to the attention of a wider audience. Though many in the world or the arts (cinema included) prefer to be seen as free-spirits, remembered for their creativity and individualism, it is often acceptance by the mainstream which indirectly pays for this giving them the wherewithal to finance their own voice in tangent with a more publicly acceptable persona.

This was a lesson Malle seemed to have learnt and, more importantly, accepted, though his move to America could by no means be seen as compromising his provocative stance or ‘selling out‘ to Tinsel Town’s oft restricting approach to self-expression.

In fact the films Malle was to direct during the later years of his career in America were equally, if not more, anti-establishment than what had gone before. Works such as Pretty Baby (1978), which revolves around child prostitution in New Orleans during the early part of the 20th century and is infamous for its nude scenes of Brooke Shields who was only twelve at the time of filming, and Alamo Bay (1985), starring Ed Harris as a Vietnam war veteran who is pushed to the edge after a group of Vietnamese immigrants move into the Texas town where he lives, were always going to divide opinion and certainly did nothing to lessen Malle’s reputation as a film-maker who would not be dictated to by the populace.

The other film for which Malle will be best remembered was made, or rather not made, during his time in Hollywood.  The ABSCAM scandal which rocked American politics during the late 1970's and early 1980's, involved an FBI sting to uncover the trafficking of stolen property, and included a fake sheikh, government officials, money for political favors and a yacht in Florida. The story was perfect fodder for someone with Malle’s subversive streak.

Along with playwright John Guare, with whom he'd co-wrote the hit crime drama Atlantic City (1980), starring Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon, Malle developed Moon Over Miami, a wry satire based around ABSCAM. Looking for two men who could inject the leads with dry humor, Malle honed in on the comic duo of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. All of which would have been fine had the film come to fruition. Unfortunately Belushi was found dead in his bungalow at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard on March 5, 1982, effectively extinguishing the project.

Neither did his move to America in any way reduce his prodigious output. Between the late 1970s and his death on Thanksgiving Day 1995 at this home in Beverly Hills, Malle directed no fewer than 11 features and documentaries, winning several major awards in the process.

Malle’s personal life was as eclectic as his film career, though in some ways more restricted. Married twice he also had several relationships, all with the common factor that each was with an actress who could be said to be as unorthodox in their careers as Malle was in his, and each of whom was also usually from a well-to-do background. His first marriage to Anne-Marie Deschdt in 1965 lasted only two years, before he went on to have a relationship with the German actress Gila von Weitershausen with whom he had a son, Mauel Guotemoc, born in 1971.

After having a daughter Justine in 1974 with the Canadian-born French actress Alexandra Stewart, he found stability with the actress Candice Bergen.  Marrying Bergen in 1980 they would remain together until his death 15 years later, during which time they had a daughter Chloé Malle in 1985.

When looking back at the debt filmmakers specifically, as well as the wider public generally, owe Louis Malle for the lasting effect he had on freedom of speech and self-expression, the words of critic Vincent Canby again seem apt. Canby’s reference to Lucien in Lacombe, Lucien as, "A character who must remain forever mysterious, forever beyond our sympathy", could just as easily be used to describe the enigmatic Malle himself.

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