Louis Malle comes from a rare breed of French
film director who achieved a reputation as a great director not just in his native France
but internationally, and was not afraid to embrace a wide range of subjects, some notoriously
Malle was born in 1932 in Thumeries, near
to Lille in northern France, into a comfortable bourgeois family which had made a fortune
in sugar production dating back to the Napoleonic wars. In 1940, at the age of 12,
he attended a Catholic boarding school near Paris (with his three brothers), a school
which was sheltering Jewish pupils. The tragic events of this time are documented
in Malle's poignant 1987 film, Au Revoir les Enfants
After the war, Malle began a degree course
in political science at the Institut d'études politiques in Paris but, against
his parents' wishes, switched to a course on film studies at the Institut des Hautes
ètudes Cinématographiques. Almost immediately after that, he was recruited
as a camera operator for the famous underwater explorer, Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
He worked as co-director on Costeau's celebrated documentary film, Le Monde du
in 1956, before working as an assistant for cult film director Robert Bresson.
The late 1950s and early 1960s was an exciting
and turbulent time for French cinema, with a whole host of young new directors finding
immediate fame. One of these New Wave directors was Louis Malle, who won instant
recognition for his first solo film as a director, L'Ascenseur pour l'échafaud
(1958). This film featured Jeanne Moreau, an actress who would become a favourite
for the other New Wave directors (most notably François Truffaut).
Jeanne Moreau starrred in Malle's next
film, Les Amants
, a tender yet explicit depiction of a frustrated housewife's
desire for an extra-marital affair. The film was both condemned and censored in
the United States for its extended nude bedroom scenes, which were pretty erotic and daring
for the time (1959).
Perhaps the defining characteristic of Louis Malle's
filmography is its variety, arising from the director's determination never to repeat
himself. This is reflected most strongly in his next film, Zazie dans le métro
(1960), which is a total contrast to his preceding films. The film is an energetic
comic farce in which a young girl wreaks mayhem and havoc when her plan to travel on the
Paris underground is thwarted by a strike.
Other successes followed, including Vie
(1962), in which Brigitte Bardot played a virtual parody of her real-life
persona and Le feu follet
(1963), a melancholic yet powerful study of a writer
on the brink of killing himself.
Having made Les Voleurs
in 1967, Malle
admitted that he was tired of western film making and, in 1969, he travelled to India,
where he made two uncompromising documentaries about the poverty he saw in that country,
and L'Inde Fantome
After his return to France, Malle again courted
controversy with his next film, Le Souffle au Coeur
, an affectionate look at adolescence
which included an incestuous relationship between a young woman and her teenage son.
Malle's second film about youth, Lacombe Lucien
(1974), was no less controversial
for its depiction of collaboration and childhood corruption in war-time France during
the Nazi occupation.
In the late 1970s, in search of new inspiration
and new territory, Louis Malle moved to the United States, where he would make half a
dozen or so films, many of which won critical acclaim. These include Pretty Baby
(1978), a story about a photographer and a pre-teenage prostitute (played by Brooke
Shields, her first major role) and Atlantic City
(1980), a curious romance involving
a gangster and a younger woman.
The pinnacle of Malle's film making
career followed his return to France with Au revoir les enfants
(1987), an autobiographical
and intensely moving account of his war-time schooldays which won two Oscar nominations.
This was followed by a light-hearted satirical comedy, Milou en Mai
theme was bourgeois complacency during the 1968 demonstrations in Paris.
Malle's final film was Vanya on
(1994), a modest, unusual screen adaptation of Chekov's play Uncle
. He died the following year, on 23 November 1995 from a cancer-related
illness. His film legacy shows a virtually unparallelled versatility which makes
each one of his films unique, including entertaining comedies or thought-provoking dramas.
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