skip navigation
Louis Malle Profile
Remind Me

Louis Malle Profile

As a director, Louis Malle is impossible to pigeon-hole. Unlike Hitchcock or John Ford, he never became associated with any one genre. Film critic Pauline Kael once wrote, "The only quality common to the films of Louis Malle is the restless intelligence one senses in them. A new Chabrol or a Losey is as easily recognizable as a Magritte, but even film enthusiasts have only a vague idea of Malle's work. Had Malle gone on making variations of almost any one of his films, it is practically certain he would have been acclaimed long ago, but a director who is impatient and dissatisfied and never tackles the same problem twice gives reviewers trouble and is likely to be dismissed as a dilettante."

Born into a wealthy family in Thumeries, Nord, France on October 30, 1932, Louis Malle's childhood was spent during the German occupation of France during World War II. "In 1944 when I was eleven I was boarding in a Catholic school near Fontainebleu [le Petit-College d'Avon]. One of my classmates, who had arrived at the beginning of the year, intrigued me a great deal. He was different, secretive. I was getting to know him, learning to love him when, one morning, our little world fell apart. I have tried to rediscover that first - and most powerful - friendship that was so abruptly destroyed; and my introduction to the absurdities of the adult world with its violence and prejudices. 1944 was a long time ago now, but I know that adolescents of today will be able to share my emotion". Malle's friend was one of three Jewish children that the priest, Father Jacques – (his real name was Lucien Bunuel) - was hiding from the Nazis. A kitchen worker who had been fired for black market dealings turned informer and the children and the priest were arrested. As Father Jacques was being led away by the Nazis, he called out "Au revoir, les enfants" ("Goodbye, children"). The three boys died at Auschwitz and Father Jacques survived Mauthausen camp but died four weeks after the war ended. What Malle deemed the most traumatic experience of his childhood became perhaps his best film (and the one he called his favorite of those he made in the 1980s), Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987). Roger Ebert, reviewing the film in 2006 remembered encountering Malle after a screening of the film, "I remember the day Au Revoir, les Enfants was shown for the first time, at the 1987 Telluride Film Festival. I had come to know Louis Malle a little since a dinner we had in 1972; he was the most approachable of great directors. I was almost the first person he saw after the screening. I remember him weeping as he clasped my hands and said, "This film is my story. Now it is told at last."

After the war, Malle attended the Sorbonne, where he studied political science briefly while simultaneously taking classes at IDHEC, the French state film school. He soon left the Sorbonne and focused entirely on film. In 1953, the great documentarian Jacques Cousteau came to the school. As Nathan Southern and Jacques Weissgerber wrote in their book The Films of Louis Malle: A Critical Analysis, "Cousteau visited IDHEC and requested a student interested in working aboard Calypso during the summer. Malle, then class president, volunteered for the task. After three months of learning to direct, shoot, edit and dive on the British Petroleum voyage, Malle dropped out of IDHEC to work with Cousteau full time. "The film became The Silent World (1956) and Cousteau gave Malle co-directorial credit. He also later called Malle the best underwater cameraman he ever had. The Silent World won the Oscar® for Best Documentary Film; and Cousteau and Malle received the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.

Malle might have remained longer with Cousteau but an ear infection landed him in a New York hospital. After recovering, he returned to France where he made his first non-documentary film, Elevator to the Gallows (1958) [French title Ascenseur pour l'échafaud ). He found it was an entirely different kind of filmmaking, "When I started Elevator, I felt I was pretty much prepared technically but I had this huge hole in my apprenticeship – dealing with actors. I'd no experience of that: I'd been filming fish for four years! I didn't feel I should take any risks, so the cast of Elevator was – with the exception of the young girl – entirely professional...I was scared to death of actors, just because I had no experience of dealing with them...From my very first film I realized I was probably, of all the directors of my generation – apart from Alain Resnais – the one who was technically the best prepared, but at the same time I had to learn everything else, which in a way was more important, especially the human element. It took me several films to learn."

During the late 1950s, Malle's films began to explore controversial sexual themes which would be an important element of his career. The Lovers (1958) ( Les Amants) had Jeanne Moreau starring as an older woman who takes a young student as her lover. The frankly sexual scenes caused a theater owner in Ohio to be taken to court on charges of possessing and exhibiting a pornographic film. In 1964 the conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court with Justice Potter Stewart making the now famous statement, "I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

Always willing to switch gears, Malle's next film was the surrealist farce, Zazie in the Metro (1960) ( Zazie Dans le Metro ) about a young girl who goes to Paris to visit her drag queen uncle (played by the great French actor Philippe Noiret) and finds her lifelong dream of riding the Metro hampered by a strike. Comparisons were made between the film's frenetic pace and characters and the comedies of the great Mack Sennett. But Malle changed direction immediately afterwards, making another controversial and overtly sexual film, A Very Private Affair (1962) (La Vie Privée) starring Brigitte Bardot and supposedly based upon her own life.

By 1967 Malle found himself in a creative rut. Disheartened by the failure of his film The Thief of Paris (Le Voleur), a turn of the century drama starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Malle left both narrative filmmaking and the West behind and traveled to India where he resumed his documentary career with Phantom India (L'Inde fantôme) and Calcutta, both in 1969. When the latter documentary was released, the Indian government launched a formal protest against the film's relentless portrayal of that country's dire poverty.

His time in India changed Malle, as his brother Vincent remembered, "He was in a completely different world. And although he had done documentaries before and went traveling a lot, this was the first time he was completely in a country that was mesmerizing and flabbergasting and everything, and so he decided to just drift Stendhal, becoming a mirror on the road, basically. And so that was very scary and at the same time very liberating." Vincent Malle felt that his brother was always trying "to put to analysis what was happening to him, and then compared it to things he had read about or knew about...[put everything into] some kind of a classification. Whereas with India, he couldn't do that because it doesn't work...everything is so your cannot try to think about Pascal and Descartes, and all of that. It doesn't work at all! India [challenged the preconceptions Louis had]...[for in India], once you think you have understood something, something else comes upon that is the complete opposite of what you thought you had understood."

On his return from India, Malle resumed his narrative film career with the controversial but Oscar® nominated Murmur of the Heart (1971) (Le Souffle au Coeur), a coming of age film that ends with an act of incest treated tenderly, and then turned around and made Lacombe Lucien (1974) about the Nazi occupation of France. In the late 1970s, Malle began working in the United States, though he found, as many French directors have, that he was somewhat stifled by the Hollywood machine. He did manage to work within the system, directing Pretty Baby (1978) and Atlantic City (1980) (for which he was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director and for Best Picture). By this time he had married American actress Candice Bergen. They would have a daughter, Chloe. In addition, Malle had two other children, Manuel and Justine, from previous relationships.

Malle returned to France in the late 1980s for Au Revoir, les Enfants and May Fools (1990) (Milou en Mai) about a weekend in a country home during the May 1968 student demonstrations and general strike in France. Again Malle took a completely different departure with this film which is very much in the style of Jean Renoir with its benign view of all its characters as well as its comedic social commentary.

Malle continued to work into the mid-1990s with Damage (1992) and his final film Vanya on 42nd St (1994), an updated version of the Chekhov play Uncle Vanya. Louis Malle died of cancer at his home in Beverly Hills on November 23, 1995. He left behind an amazingly complex and varied body of work. The fact that he could create films in so many different genres made him a master, not a dilettante.

by Lorraine LoBianco

The Films of Louis Malle, A Critical Analysis by Nathan Southern with Jacques Weissgerber
Chicago Sun-Times May 7, 2006, Au Revoir, les Enfants by Roger Ebert
The Internet Movie Database