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Louis Malle

Posted: March 23rd, 2011, 4:37 pm
by MichiganJ
While I'd seen some Louis Malle's films, I've been watching a lot that are new to me and in order or production.
I'm not quite sure if Malle was, or even considered himself part of the New Wave, but clearly many of his earlier films included many of components of the New Wave, most notably his use of actual locations and source lighting and filming techniques. In some of his early films, Malle, like Godard, manipulates his film speeds, employs jumps cuts, etc., But, unlike Godard, Malle seems to use these techniques more to punctuate or elicit an emotion from the viewer (usually a laugh), rather than remind the viewer that one is watching a film.

Unlike Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Chabrol, et al, I have been finding it difficult to define exactly what a Louis Malle is. There is no discernible style , per se. No favorite camera moves, shots, themes, nothing I can see, so far, that says "This is a Louis Malle Film". This is not to say that I don't like Malle's films; on the contrary, of the six I've watched so far, four are classics, or close to. (The other two star Brigitte Bardot, both of which require at least another viewing or two to really assess, just to be on the safe side.) Perhaps by not having his own style, Malle was focusing on servicing the script (often written or co-written by Malle himself), or maybe I'm just missing the style. In any event, I'm more than pleasantly surprised by his films.

The first few:

Elevator to the Gallows (1958) I've seen this three times in the last two years and it hasn't lost any of its initial impact, and perhaps gained some. One of my favorite noir films (admittedly, a genre I don't know well), it's hard to beat the mixture of claustrophobia (Malle was a student of Bresson) and the deserted, rainy streets of Paris. The film is taut, exciting, and even after multiple viewings, full of surprises. The shots of Jeanne Moreau walking the dark streets of Paris in the rain with the haunting improvised score by Miles Davis on the soundtrack, now that's cinema!
(This film was released a year before Truffaut's debut feature, and I dunno, it sure feels like a New Wave film to me.)

The Lovers (1958) First time seeing this and I hate to give anything away, although the story really isn't all that complicated or even particularly original. But wow is it told well, with lots of loving close-ups of Moreau (both full face and profile), and there's a lengthy sequence, two-thirds or more in the film that is one of the best depictions of, if not falling in actual love, than falling in that hard-to-define initial attraction that is often mistaken for love. There's a sex scene, which is far from gratuitous and would likely warrant a PG-13 today, but was the scene that brought the film to the Supreme Court in the famous case where pornography was defined as "I know it when I see it." I assure you (as the Court did), this ain't even close. Pretty great.

Zazie dans le métro (1960) Think of a film directed by Richard Lester, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Max Sennett. Let's toss in a bit of Magical Mystery Tour, too. This is that kind of film, and then some. It's about a twelve-year old girl who visits relatives in Paris and all she wants to do is ride the metro. But the métro workers are on strike…
This gags come fast and furry-ous (remember, it's like Chuck Jones), and the movie really is a mix of silent comedy and Warner Brothers cartoons. Malle uses every cinematic trick in the book, mostly to great effect (admittedly, the film is somewhat tiring, in the best possible way), and at the very least, one has no idea what to expect next. Zazie is played by Catherine Demongeot, who has one of the most adorable smiles in film, and this is one of the earlier films starring the great Philippe Noiret! Again, filmed on location in Paris (even if you hate the movie, make sure to watch the sequences on the Eiffel Tower--they are breathtaking) and the color looks like Malle filmed on an MGM soundstage. Glorious.

Re: Louis Malle

Posted: March 23rd, 2011, 6:34 pm
by kingrat
MJ, thanks for starting this thread on Louis Malle. I haven't seen any of those three films, though I'd like to, and Elevator to the Gallows is coming up on TCM in a few days. My reactions are similar to yours. Malle is hard to pin down. Obviously he doesn't want to keep making the same film over again. For instance, he made a documentary about Calcutta I'd like to see.

One constant, for me, is a certain coldness, a certain distance. This isn't necessarily a bad quality, though it could be. For instance, he has no trouble avoiding sentimentality in Au revoir, les enfants, when a schoolboy discovers that some of his classmates are Jews hiding from the Nazis in occupied France. On the other hand, we're never as close to the characters as we might be. His detachment works in Pretty Baby, where Keith Carradine has eyes for the underage Brooke Shields.

I love his early film The Fire Within (Le feu follet, which means the will-of-the-wisp), where Maurice Ronet intends to kill hmself and visits some of his friends before making the final decision. Do not watch this film if you're feeling depressed! This is my favorite Malle film.

Viva Maria is a strange comedy. I mean, Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau as showgirls on tour in Central America, great. Jeanne developing revolutionary fervor to overthrow the country's dictators and BB turning out to be a munitions expert, well, OK, it's a movie. George Hamilton as a French-speaking hunky combination of Jesus and Che Guevara, now that's really weird. The combination of location shooting, a plot that requires much suspension of disbelief, and BB as a prime candidate for SueSue's Big Hair Thread, among other things, does make the film memorable.

I like both of his American films, Pretty Baby and Atlantic City.

Re: Louis Malle

Posted: March 24th, 2011, 2:12 pm
by charliechaplinfan
Les Amants is one of my favorite films, I never new the film was debated in court, the scenes seems so tame yet so effective compared to today's love scenes. Elevator to the Gallows is another film I'd enjoyed and always presumed to be New Wave but realise now the date predates Truffaut. I really like the combination of Jeanne Moreau and Louis Malle. I really should explore more of his films after enjoying these so much.

Re: Louis Malle

Posted: March 24th, 2011, 5:10 pm
by MichiganJ
kingrat wrote:One constant, for me, is a certain coldness, a certain distance. This isn't necessarily a bad quality, though it could be.

I actually don't notice a distance in Malle, at least in the films I've seen thus far. Indeed, his camera is quite intimate in The Lovers. Elevator does have an air of documentary about it, mostly because of the actual locations, coupled with some very believable and naturalistic performances. Zazie is both distancing and intimate. But heck, it's everything.
kingrat wrote:I love his early film The Fire Within (Le feu follet...)

The Fire Within is brilliant. Catapulted to the top of my all-time favorite films. Hope to write up some coherent thoughts on it and the Bardot films soon.
kingrat wrote:Viva Maria is a strange comedy. I mean, Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau as showgirls on tour in Central America, great. Jeanne developing revolutionary fervor to overthrow the country's dictators and BB turning out to be a munitions expert, well, OK, it's a movie. George Hamilton as a French-speaking hunky combination of Jesus and Che Guevara, now that's really weird. The combination of location shooting, a plot that requires much suspension of disbelief, and BB as a prime candidate for SueSue's Big Hair Thread, among other things, does make the film memorable.

Hard to resist a film starring BB and Jeanne Moreau, much less one that has them as a striptease duo! Wacky doesn't begin to describe the film and it certainly does require a lot of suspension of disbelief. I mean, BB plays an Irish terrorist!

Re: Louis Malle

Posted: March 29th, 2011, 7:02 am
by Mr. Arkadin
With the showing of Elevator to the Gallows last night, I was reminded of this thread. While I love and enjoy all the films mentioned above, my appreciation for Malle came from his documentaries.

In Place de la République (1974), Malle takes to the streets of Paris, interviewing complete strangers and allowing them to dictate the topic of conversation. Calcutta (1969) is a beautifully shot overview of the Indian city, which consists entirely of images, while God's Country (1985) explores the plight of the modern American farmer.

Like his dramas, Malle makes these works exciting and thought provoking, many times allowing us to have the final say on what we are viewing, resulting in many different interpretations of the same film.

Re: Louis Malle

Posted: March 29th, 2011, 1:56 pm
by charliechaplinfan
I've never seen any of his documentaries, I'll look out for them.

Re: Louis Malle

Posted: March 30th, 2011, 6:51 am
by Mr. Arkadin
We included Place de la République in Prof. ChiO's movie course on voyeurism some time ago:

viewtopic.php?f=22&t=2599

These films are all available in an Eclipse box set.

Re: Louis Malle

Posted: May 16th, 2011, 3:58 pm
by MichiganJ
Still watching the Malle films:

After the zaniness of Zazie, Malle's changes gears completely. Again.

Vive le tour (1962) Less than 20-minute documentary on the 1962 Tour De France is simply great. Traveling along with the racers, Malle gets some truly amazing shots of the grueling and often agonizing event, which includes such odd things as "drink raids", where the participants leave their bikes and raid a bar, grabbing bottles of wine, beer, and hopefully water, and then leaving without paying (the merchants charge the race presenters.) After a bad crash, Malle travels alongside one of the victims, blood pouring down his face (he looks like an extra from an Argento film), and amazingly, he's being tended to while continuing the race. Drugs, too, are addressed, and we watch as one rider comes down from his enhancement, loosing all of his energy and passing out on his bike. So much in 20-minutes, one wishes the film were longer. A great document on what the race looked like in the early 60s.

A Very Private Affair (1962) The first of a few Malle films featuring Brigitte Bardot also stars Marcello Mastroianni. Bardot's character becomes a huge celebrity and is constantly hounded by hordes of paparazzi and fans, following her as she tries to escape to a small town in Italy where her lover (Mastroianni) is staging a play. Once there, Marcello hides poor Brigitte away in their room, where Brigitte aches to break free (and indeed, misses all of the attention.)
The film meanders and doesn't really come together until the terrific final moments, which almost makes up for the lack of focus of the rest of the film. Almost. Oddly, Bardot and Mastroianni have little chemistry and the film is greatly marred by awful English dubbing, which includes a narrator who must have been the same monotone guy who narrated those old film strips we used to see in Junior High social studies class.

The Fire Within (1963) I agree completely with Kingrat; I Love this film. An honest look at a recovering alcoholic who tries to find meaning to his life, is not exactly as bleak as it sounds, at least not for a film dealing with existential despair. Maurice Ronet is superb, and he's briefly reunited with his Elevator to the Gallows costar, Jeanne Moreau, who is almost unrecognizable.

Viva Maria! (1965) As I'd written before, wacky doesn't begin to describe this film. While great fun, the balance of comedy/farce with sequences with actual, realistic violence often works against the humor. For me, this film benefited greatly with repeated viewings, which isn't difficult (we are talking about Moreau and Bardot, here.)

William Wilson (Malle's segment in the omnibus film Spirits of the Dead) (1968) Worked for me better as a stand alone short than it did as the center story in the Poe trilogy. A doppelgänger tale, which is rich in atmosphere and suspense, also contains plenty of disturbing scenes, which again, worked better (and made more sense) on repeated viewings. Alain Delon is both creepy and sympathetic (at times), and Bardot, wearing a severe black wig (which is horrible), is haunting, too.

Calcutta (1969) A documentary with very little narration, Malle's camera provides the images and allows the viewer to make of them what they will. Mostly. (There is some editing, which is quite effective, in which Malle contrasts the haves with the have nots). Even understanding that the film was made in 1969 and does not reflect modern Calcutta, the film is very harrowing, moving, and allows for enormous reflection and involvement on the viewer's part.

Phantom India (1969) 7-part made-for-TV documentary is an absolute must-see, even by people who don't think they'd be interested at all. Lots of narration here, for a Malle doc, done by Malle himself, and while his narrative films don't seem to reveal much about Malle, this documentary sure does. We learn as much about Malle as we do India, and it's fascinating. (Malle seems to be learning about himself, too. His honesty is refreshing and draws one further into the film.) In India, Malle had no preconceived plan on what to film, and pretty much just shot things he saw that interested him. Seriously, this is a magnificent film. At least try and see segment two, the latter half of which is filmed in a school where two beautiful young women practice their Indian dance. Their dance is hypnotic, profound and incredibly moving. Just like the entire documentary. Don't miss it.