Oscar Directors: Malle, Louis–Great Director but not Auteur

elevator_to_the_gallows_posterOne of the most consistently innovative filmmaker of his generation, with a diverse body of work, Louis Malle has not received the critical attention that was accorded to his French peers of the New Wave, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Resnais, Rohmer. Unlike those directors, Malle came from a privileged family (as an heir to the Beghin sugar fortune), was formally educated at the Sorbonne. A graduate of IDHEC, the government’s prestigious film school)and did not engage in film criticism in the influential magazine, Cahiers du Cinema.

Born on October 30, 1932, Malle began his career with Jacques‑Yves Cousteau, working on the celebrated underwater documentary Le Monde de Silence/The Silent World (1956). Malle also directed two shorts and served as Robert Bresson’s assistant on Un Condamne a Mort s’est echappe/A Man Escaped (1956) before turning out his first solo feature as a director, Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud/ Elevator to the Gallows (made in 1957) a stylish Psy­chological thriller noted for Henri Dacae’s darkly atmospheric photography of Paris. The film, which showcased the talent of Jeanne Moreau, enjoyed considerable success and earned Malle the coveted Prix Delluc.

the_lovers_posterMalle’s next film, Les Amants/The Lovers (1958), caused much controversy because of its overly explicit sexuality. It became a big commercial hit, internationally establishing the reputations of both its director and star, the dazzling Jeanne Moreau. The lyrical treatment, frank approach, and fluid tracking shots of the love scenes that marked this film at the time of its first showing remain more memorable than its intended commentary on the vacuity and ennui of the French bourgeoisie. Winning the Special Jury Prize at Venice Festival, The Lovers signaled the beginning of a career that would be rife with controversy.

Following a change‑of‑pace, the light and frivolous Zazie dans le Metro/Zazie (1960), the story of a foul-mouthed teenager, Malle turned out Vie privee/A Very Private Affair (1962), a study of the rise of a film star, boasting the sex symbol Brigitte Bardot in a fictionalized biography.

Demonstrating his versatility and the broad range of his concerns and style, Malle next made Le Feu Follet/The Fire Within (1963), a somber, keenly observed, sensitively told story of mental disintegration, centering on the last few days in the life of a suicidal alcoholic. Again Malle won the Special Jury Prize at Venice, this time in a tie.

Shifting gears once more, Malle directed Viva Maria (1965), a fun‑filled, visually spectacular bit of nonsense co‑starring the two great leading ladies of the French cinema. Bardot and Moreau. Next came Le Voleur/The Thief of Paris (1967), a well‑executed period crime drama that re­created turn‑of‑the‑century Paris.

viva_maria_posterIn 1968, Malle visited India and made a seven part documentary series L’Inde fantôme: Reflexions sur un voyage and a documentary, Calcutta (1969), which was released in theaters. Concentrating on India’s customs and rituals, Malle fell afoul of the Indian government, which disliked his portrayal of the country’s more‑appalling aspects of life in India, like poverty and overcrowding. As a result, it banned the BBC from filming in India for several years. Malle later claimed that his docu about India was his favorite film.

Malle returned to the fictional arena with Le Soufflé au Coeur/Murmur of the Heart (1971), a tenderly treated coming of age tale of incest and adolescence, and Lacombe Lucien (1973), a character study of an opportunistic guy who sets out to become a hero of the Resistance, only to be seduced by the lifestyle of a collaborationist during the Nazi Occupation, Both films generated their impact through their honesty and moving simplicity. Black Moon (1975), one of Malle’s weakest works, is an eccentric and self‑indulgent film inspired by Lewis Car­roll’s Alice in Wonderland.

In 1978, Malle released his first American‑made film, the controversial, attention‑grabbing story of a 12‑year‑old prostitute, Pretty Baby. The atmospheric, nicely photographed film made a star of a pubescent Brooke Shields and contains strong performances from Keith Carradine and Susan Sarandon, Malle’s partner at the time.

Malle continued his American ventures with the Canadian‑French‑spon­sored Atlantic City (1980), a  minutely‑observed chronicle of a city in transition, boasting superb performances by Burt Lancaster as a has-been gangster and Susan Sarandon as his young lover. The film won several international prizes, including the British Film Academy Award.

The director next elicited two delightful performances from two real characters in My Dinner with Andre (1981), a remarkably intelligent film consisting entirely of a dinner conversation between avant‑garde theater director Andre Gregory and actor‑playwright Wallace Shawn.  Just as his earlier films helped popularize French cinema in the U.S., My Dinner with Andre was at the forefront of the rise of American independent cinema of the 1980s.

Malle closed his American chapter with two disappointing films. Unfortunately, Crackers (1984) and Alamo Bay (1985) were both artistic and commercial flops.

Zazie_dans_le_metro_posterMalle’s career took a turn for the better in 1987 with Au Revoir les Enfants (Goodbye, Children), arguably his best work, a deeply‑felt childhood memoir of his traumatic experience at a Catholic boarding school that harbored Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of France. International prizes for the film included the Golden Lion at Venice, three Cesars (Best Film, Director, Screenplay), the British Film Academy Award for Best Director, and the European Film Award for Best Screenplay.  This was followed by another decent French film, Milou en Mai (May Fools) in 1990.

Relocating again to New York, he made in 1992 a slight (and a bit silly) erotic family melodrama, Damage, which offered strong performances from lead Jeremy Irons and Miranda Richardson, but drew negative reviews, resulting in a failure.

His very last film, however, before his untimely death at 62, was Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), an original and successful updating of Anton Chekhov’s famous play, Uncle Vanya), with a superlative performance from Julianne Moore and others.

Malle was married to Anne-Marie Deschodt from 1965 to 1967. He had a son, Manuel Cuotemoc (born 1971), with German actress Gila von Weitershausen and a daughter Justine (born 1974) with Canadian-born French actress Alexandra Stewart. He married actress Candice Bergen in 1980, and the couple had one daughter, Chloé Malle, in 1985. He died from lymphoma in his Beverly Hills home in 1995.

Malle has never been described as  a woman’s director, even though at least half of his films center on complex and vibrant femmes, played by such dazzling actresses as Jeanne Moreau (three films), Brigitte Bardot (also three), Susan Sarandon (two), even Brooke Shields.

Hoping from docus to fictional features, made in French and in English, and treating just about any genre imaginable, Malle has not been recognized as a major or genuine auteur due to the lack of consistently recognizable thematic or stylistic attributes in his rich and diverse output of two dozen films.