Malle, Louis

Malle, Louis
   Director. Louis Malle was born into a wealthy family who owned the Béghin sugar dynasty. He studied at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (IDHEC), and during his student years codirected his first major work, Le monde du silence (1956), with JacquesYves Cousteau. The underwater documentary won a Golden Palm at Cannes and an Oscar for Best Documentary. He later worked as an assistant director for Robert Bresson on his 1956 film, Un condamné à mort s'est échappé. Bresson's film was funded by the Malle family's production company, Nouvelles Editions de Films. The company produced Malle's own first feature film, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, which won the Prix Louis-Delluc in 1957. The film's cinematographer was Henri Decae, who would work with Malle on several of his early films, and the film starred Jeanne Moreau, who would also play the lead in Malle's 1958 Les Amants, a film that received both acclaim and censorship for its explicit sexual content and its then controversial and groundbreaking portrayal of a woman's sexual pleasure. In the United States, the question of whether Les Amants was pornographic went all the way to the Supreme Court.
   Although there are similarities between the film aesthetics and daring of Malle and his contemporaries in the Nouvelle Vague or New Wave, Malle distanced himself from the New Wave. Unlike the other directors of the New Wave, Malle was not a Cahiers du cinéma critic, was skeptical about the idea of a New Wave, and had a rather ample film budget. Nevertheless, the directorial successes he received during his youth in the late 1950s, his use of amoral, anti-heroic protagonists, his employment of settings outside of the studio, and his portrayals of characters associated with the Algerian War have led several observers to make parallels.
   Malle's feature films in the early 1960s were generally popular successes. These include Zazie dans le métro (1960), Vie privée (1962), and Viva Maria (1965). Vie privée is a portrayal of its leading actress, international film star Brigitte Bardot. Viva Maria brought together Moreau and Bardot—two actresses who are also linked to the New Wave. Malle's Le feu follet (1963) stars Maurice Ronet, a right-wing actor whose friendship with Malle raised questions about his seemingly fluctuating political ties, as did his relationship with right-wing novelist Roger Nimier, who worked on the script of Ascenseur pour l'échafaud.
   Malle later codirected a film in three parts with directors Roger Vadim and Federico Fellini, titled Histoires extraordinaires (1967).
   Malle's sketch, William Wilson, costarred Bardot and Alain Delon. Malle subsequently declared that he had grown weary of commercial filmmaking and accepted an opportunity to travel to India, where he shot the documentaries Calcutta (1968) and L'Inde fantôme (1968). Critics trace Malle's increased politicization to his journey to India and to the events in France of May 1968. Malle, who served on the 1968 Cannes jury, supported the suspension of the Festival along with Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and others.
   In the 1970s and 1980s, Malle continued to direct provocative films. His portrayal of an incestuous relationship between mother and son in Le souffle au coeur (1971) attempted to challenge conventional notions of sexuality. He would again face censorship with Pretty Baby (1978), a film featuring then child actress Brooke Shields, set in a brothel in New Orleans. In addition to challenging the status quo with his representations of sexuality, Malle's portrayals of French collaboration with the Nazis sparked debates concerning the myth of France's unified resistance to the Occupation. Lacombe Lucien (1974) has been noted for its disturbingly neutral representation of French collaborators and is often included among works belonging to the Mode Rétro. Patrick Modiano, an author considered pivotal to reorienting discussions about the French role in the Holocaust, wrote the screenplay for the film.
   Malle's autobiographical feature Au revoir les enfants (1987) depicts the director's childhood friendship with a Jewish boy who was tragically taken from his school by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp. It recognizes heroic acts of French resistance while also foregrounding the alliances some French citizens made with German Nazis. The film won seven César Awards (including Best Director, Film, and Screenplay), the Prix Louis-Delluc, the Golden Lion at Venice, and Best Director at the British Film Academy Awards. Several critics have asserted that Au revoir les enfants, Malle's most acclaimed film, provides a window into the formative experiences that most poignantly shaped Malle's art.
   In the late 1970s, Malle began directing English-language feature films in the United States, which include Pretty Baby, Atlantic City USA (1980)—both featuring actress Susan Sarandon—My Dinner with André (1981), Crackers (1984), and Alamo Bay (1985). He also directed documentaries — God's Country (1986) and And the Pursuit of Happiness (1987) — during his sojourn in Hollywood. My Dinner with André, a film that focuses on the conversations of two protagonists, was remarkable for its rejection of spectacle and fast action that characterized many of the films of his American colleagues.
   In the 1990s, Malle directed his last French film, Milou en mai (1990), based on Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. His final work was an Anglophone film set in New York, Vanya on 42nd Street (1994). It, too, took its inspiration from Chekhov. In this film, Malle blends documentary and feature filmmaking as he recounts the lives of actors rehearsing for a production of the play Uncle Vanya.
   If any consistencies can be observed in Malle's work, it may be his films' provocative elements. His ideas, whether they be related to national history, gender, sexuality, or bourgeois morality are difficult to classify and challenging to interpret. In many of his films, his characters are at one and the same time sympathetic and disturbing, representative of the tendency of human relationships to defy simplified descriptions. His ability to inspire continued debate in France and elsewhere is perhaps one of his most enduring legacies.

Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. . 2007.

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