Louis Malle



Louis Malle photo
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 controversial.

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 silence 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 privée (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, Calcutta 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 (1989), whose theme was bourgeois complacency during the 1968 demonstrations in Paris.

Malle's final film was Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), a modest, unusual screen adaptation of Chekov's play Uncle Vanya. 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.

Traduction française

The above article was submitted to filmsdefrance.com in good faith and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.


Louis Malle was nominated for 3 Academy Awards for: Le Souffle au coeur (1973, Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced); Atlantic City (1982, Best Director); and Au revoir, les enfants (1988, Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen).

He also won 3 Césars for: Au revoir, les enfants (1988, Best Director); Au revoir, les enfants (1988, Best Film); and Au revoir, les enfants (1988, Best Screenplay, Original or Adaptation).

He was also the recipient of 1 Festival de Cannes award for: Le Monde du silence (1956, Palme d'Or).

He also received 4 Venice Film Festival awards for: Les Amants (1958, Special Jury Prize); Le Feu Follet (1963, Special Jury Prize); Atlantic City (1980, Golden Lion); and Au revoir, les enfants (1987, Golden Lion).

He also won 2 BAFTAs for: Atlantic City (1982, Best Direction); and Au revoir, les enfants (1989, Best Direction).


“I didn't feel like going any further in this scene with the boy. He was not a professional actor, and if I had pushed the scene any further it would have destroyed the tone of the movie.”

“I've a lot of admiration for mercenary directors who can take anything and make it work. But if it's not my material, if I don't care tremendously about it, I don't do a good job.”

“It takes a long time to learn simplicity.”

“Well, Fellini... there is always Fellini.”

“When you are working on a script, the story itself is not difficult. You say this would happen and then this, resulting perhaps in this. And the dialogue you make as true as you can.”

“You must find the note, the correct key, for your story. If you find it, everything will work. If you do not, everything will stick out like elbows.”

“[On Woody Allen] He's the one who does what he really wants.”

Related articles

2015 film releases

Read more about the French films to be released in 2015...

The Silent Era

Before the advent of sound France was a world leader in cinema. Find out more about this overlooked era.

The Golden Age

Discover the best French films of the 1930s, a decade of cinematic delights...

The Occupation Era

Even in the dark days of the Occupation, French cinema continued to impress with its artistry and diversity.

The New Wave

A wave of fresh talent in the late 1950s, early 1960s brought about a dramatic renaissance in French cinema, placing the auteur at the core of France's 7th art.