Although Louis Malle is frequently lumped together with other French directors as part of the ’50s-’60s New Wave, he is more a younger brother to the maverick self-consciousness of a Jean-Luc Godard or a François Truffaut. Or perhaps an impractical, lovesick cousin. Unlike the filmographies of many of his Nouvelle Vague contemporaries, Malle’s body of work appears at first glance to lack a persistent theme — other than that of unbridled nostalgia. Malle (1932-1995) was never one for hurling paving stones at the establishment or upending film language for the sake of revolution. In his most memorable films he seemed more concerned with purging his personal demons, while coincidentally exploring unfamiliar turf with the eye of a sympathetic stranger.
The “little stabs of happiness” theory of film appreciation could have been formulated especially for Malle. His numerous grace notes, scattered throughout his wide-ranging filmography like careless gratuities, could fill a feature-length highlights reel.
For instance, take Burt Lancaster’s celebrated speech about how wonderful the ocean used to be, from Atlantic City. Consider the face of Jeanne Moreau at the height of orgasm — a Greek goddess’ mask of power — in The Lovers. Or the way dissolute playboy Maurice Ronet takes off his wristwatch and leaves it as a tip for the concierge in The Fire Within. Benoit Ferreux’ youthful giddiness in Murmur of the Heart, keyed by the bebop jazz of Charlie Parker, captures the feeling of what it’s like to be thirteen, rich, and French. Meanwhile the expression on Pierre Blaise’s face as his character, the eponymous Lacombe, Lucien, receives a little black coffin from the Resistance (the calling card of imminent death), flips that giddiness over. And then, how about Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory conversing nonstop for 110 minutes in My Dinner with Andre?
There’s more: The rat that ambles across the early-morning bedroom floor of the bordello at the beginning of Pretty Baby. The fearsome sight of Ku Klux Klansmen in full regalia — led by a grim Ed Harris — steaming in an armed flotilla toward a group of Vietnamese fishermen off Texas, in Alamo Bay. The Indian holy man, glimpsed in Calcutta, who has stood under a tree for seven years without sitting or lying down. The young Minnesota dairy farmer and his wife, nestled in their kitchen in God’s Country, who come to the realization, on camera, that they’re the last generation to work the land. The puzzlement on schoolboy Gaspard Manesse’s face as he spies his classmate Raphaël Fejtö, late at night in the boarding school dorm, praying in a decidedly un-Christian manner in Au revoir les enfants. And maybe best of all, the glee with which little Zazie (played to the hilt by Catherine Demongeot), in 1960’s Zazie dans le Métro, skips down the sidewalks of Left Bank Paris looking for trouble.
Malle is probably best known in the United States — aside from having been the husband of Candice Bergen — as the director of Atlantic City (1980) and Au revoir les enfants (1987). Those two international successes are both included in “Risk and Reinvention: The Films of Louis Malle,” a succinct smattering of eleven features plus a short, put together by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, playing the Pacific Film Archive through August 26. But the selections include rarities as well.
The mini-retrospective opens Thursday with a fine example of one of the overlooked components of Malle’s oeuvre, a documentary called And the Pursuit of Happiness. The 1986 exploration of the incongruities of the contemporary American scene introduces us to Euro immigrants in Texas, border patrol officers in Arizona, and, amazingly, former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, looking ill at ease in Miami. Despite faint traces of ironic skepticism (the doc was made for French TV), it’s apparent that Malle actually admires Americans. This ambivalent feeling comes across even more strongly in the 1985 doc God’s Country, a visit to the farming community of Glencoe, Minnesota, where we visit polkafied wedding receptions and the local bacon plant, and watch the locals mow and edge their lawns. For a filmmaker who comes from a wealthy French family, Malle expresses a genuine fondness for his Middle American subjects, especially the little old lady who tends her garden every day wearing an old-fashioned sunbonnet.
Both the above docs were made during Malle’s American period, which saw him immerse himself in a certain discomfiting view of his home away from home — the ideal America that could have been, held up in comparison to the depressing, often brutal reality. In addition to his grassroots-level docs, Malle treats us to life in a New Orleans whorehouse (Pretty Baby), the downscale love story of Atlantic City (Susan Sarandon’s signature role), the forced-looking cosmopolitan conviviality of My Dinner with Andre; a doomed remake of Big Deal on Madonna Street, Crackers (set in San Francisco and starring Sean Penn and Donald Sutherland); and the anti-immigrant violence of Alamo Bay.
As if adopting Nicholas Ray’s motto, “I’m a stranger here myself,” Malle thrived on his outsider’s eye, nowhere more so than in the mammoth documentary Phantom India, excerpted in this series in Calcutta, a magnificently unhurried slice of daily life in that uncontrollable metropolis, circa 1969, reported with very little narration. Even when Malle turned his documentary eye on his native France, he carefully kept his distance. In Place de la République (1974), we observe the ordinary, comical comings and goings in that busy Paris square. For the 1972 Human, Too Human, Malle tackled nothing less than the notion of work. His arty “industrial,” done verité style with no commentary, lingers in a Citroën auto plant until we can’t stand it anymore — and then we remember that the workers spend eight hours a day, five days a week there.
If we could characterize Malle’s career as people-watching raised to an art form, his coming-of-age stories surely represent the Malle heartland. The PFA series has captured four of these gems in all their wistfulness: Zazie dans le Métro; Lacombe, Lucien; Au revoir les enfants; and the enigmatic Murmur of the Heart, with its incestuous trip through the looking glass, back to privileged provincial life in the 1950s. Chief among the rarities is The Fire Within (Le feu follet), the 1964 tale of a suicidal alcoholic trying to recapture his past through a succession of Parisian bars and dining rooms (reminiscent of Cassavetes as well as Fellini), and failing. Indeed, most of Malle’s career — 33 directorial efforts from 1953 to 1994 — with its steady diet of nostalgic wanderings and beautiful losers, has the air of a treasured souvenir from home, lovingly tended by an exile.
For serious Malle fans who can’t get enough, this month looks promising. SF’s Balboa Theatre is running its own Malle series, August 11-24, featuring The Lovers, Pretty Baby, the Jeanne Moreau-Brigitte Bardot starrer Viva Maria, and May Fools (Milou en mai), among other films not screening at the PFA. Also, Rialto Pictures is rereleasing Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échefaud), a French neo-noir with a renowned jazz soundtrack by Miles Davis. It opens August 19 at Landmark’s Act in Berkeley. Lastly, the Criterion Collection is reportedly releasing Phantom India on DVD soon. While France is on vacation, we can count our Louis.