A look back at Louis Malle’s Masterpiece ‘Murmur of the Heart’

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Murmur of the Heart (Le souffle au coeur)

Directed by Louis Malle

France, 1971

Louis Malle’s first narrative feature-film was 1958’s Elevator to the Gallows. A jazzy, contribution to the late-noir period it placed Malle conveniently between the too-cool gangster pictures of Jean-Pierre Melville and the too-cool New Wave pictures of Jean-Luc Godard. Instead of continuing on this predetermined track, Malle took a left turn, and then another one. His refusal to be categorized is reminiscent of the varied work of an earlier auteur, the great John Huston.

After adding comedies, documentaries, and stark dramas to his repertoire, Malle turned to the film that, alongside 1974’s Lacombe, Lucien and 1987’s Au Revoir Les Enfants, would establish his reputation as a personal filmmaker, Murmur of the Heart.

Similar to Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, Malle takes a look back at his childhood in a coming-of-age film that manages to be gentle, while remaining shocking even in 2011. Unlike Truffaut’s films, Malle’s are largely uninflected, observational, and more narratively free-form.

Louis Malle in this film is Laurent Chevalier, played brilliantly by then-newcomer Benôit Ferreux. Laurent lives with his two brothers Thomas and Marc (Fabien Ferreux and Marc Winocourt) and his parents Charles (Daniel Gélin) and Clara (Lea Massari, L’Avventura, The Things of Life).

Laurent’s brothers have been kicked out of school, they frequent a local brothel, steal their parents’ car, and drink regularly. Laurent, though only 15, is the scholar of the house. He reads Camus, listens to Charlie Parker, and petitions against French involvement in Indochina. Despite having three male figures to look up to Laurent is very much a mama’s boy and it is this mother-son relationship that Malle’s film hinges on.

Murmur of the Heart is overwhelmingly Oedipal, and it would be easy to point out incest as both a primary theme and the ultimate point of the film. This is a mistake. There is a certain amount of shock value in Laurent and Clara’s relationship, and the final act of the film, where a jealous tension builds between Laurent and Clara’s unseen lover intentionally does not shy away from its depiction of illicit sexuality, but Malle does well to keep the tone gentle and innocent. A scene where Laurent lays out his mother’s undergarments in her shape while she is away, giving him a tangible, temporary, surrogate mother, speaks simultaneously to his youth and his budding sexuality.

Malle stages Murmur of the Heart as a series of loosely connected vignettes, where all things sexual – Laurent’s awkward loss of his virginity, an encounter with a particularly amorous priest – act as a psychological confusion for the young protagonist. Long sound bridges connect scenes long after the visual edit, a technique that insists upon the enduring life of each individual scene and reinforces the idea that this film is simply a glimpse and not the whole story.

The real power in Malle’s film is that there is no indictment against or endorsement of any sort of moral system. His film is staunchly youth-driven, where ethics are subservient to the whims of naivety. By keeping the entirety of the film in Laurent’s perspective Malle intentionally tinges it with a false sense of empowerment, mimicking Laurent’s own puffed up courage.

– Neal Dhand

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