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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » 3 Films by Louis Malle - Criterion Collection
3 Films by Louis Malle - Criterion Collection
Criterion // R // March 28, 2006
List Price: $79.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Svet Atanasov | posted April 4, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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The Films:

Murmur of the Heart (1971)

Fifteen-year-old Laurent Chevalier (Benoit Ferreux) wants to learn all about life there is: the good, the bad, the ugly. Living with his two older brothers in a wealthy family where arrogance is as common as the sophisticated manners the boys are encouraged to follow Laurent is fascinated with everything a future gentleman should avoid – jazz, alcohol, paid sex. At the Catholic school where he is enrolled the teachers hardly teach any of the lessons Laurent is willing to learn. So, he fakes the games older people play hoping that along the way life will teach him what no one else could.

Le Souffle au Coeur a.k.a Murmur of the Heart (1971) is arguably the best coming-of-age film ever made. Sweet, tender, bitter, disappointing, at times uncharacteristically funny Louis Malle's film has all the necessary ingredients for a timeless classic. Yet, Murmur of the Heart has often been criticized for its too honest exploration of a growing boy's sexuality and his struggle to understand how those more cultured than him live.

It is Laurent's struggle and consequently his denial of the social ordinance he is thrown into that transform Murmur of the Heart into an impressive story. The abolishment of all the typical clichés that come with films dealing with unconventional characters provides this more than thirty years old film with an unusual flavor. The honest relationship between a mother and son, Laurent's inability to copy the "grown-up" behavior his brothers have mastered, and of course his unparalleled curiosity throw the young boy into a world of controversy. There Laurent will learn that the most important lessons in life are the ones learned outside of the classroom.

French writer-director Louis Malle who once worked as a stage assistant for Robert Bresson had an unusually refined sense of detail. In Murmur of the Heart, just as it is the case with his widely acclaimed Au Revoir Les Enfants, the camera often follows the main protagonist by focusing on what other film directors are likely to avoid. Malle's camera would linger on Laurent's unfinished cigar, his half-empty glass of wine, even the boy's wide open eyes glued at his mother taking a bath. Then abruptly shifting the pace of Murmur of the Heart Malle would go back to conventional storytelling leaving the viewer unsure of where this film is heading.

If there is anything certain about Murmur of the Heart it is the fact that this is one of the most well-known politically incorrect films. The perception which Malle leaves behind with his work is that of liberation achieved through questionable morality. As a result, those who long ago dismissed Murmur of the Heart as a cheap attempt in originality claimed that the film never answered the questions it presents.

How pity indeed! I can hardly think of another film that reveals better the confusion raging in a young boy who will soon become a man. The highly compromised game of right versus wrong and all of the moralistic blabbing that society endows it with has never been better exposed, most certainly not in another film that I could recall, than in Murmur of the Heart. And who better to caricature it than a Frenchman whose own childhood was plagued with precisely the same questionable morality Murmur of the Heart so vehemently disregards.

Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)

We all make mistakes! We suffer because of them, we attempt to forget, and often we even manage to learn from our wrongdoings hoping to avoid what made us fault in the first place. Au Revoir Les Enfants is a film about learning how to endure the consequences of one's actions. It is also a film about true friendship and the ugliness of a time from our history that affected the lives of many people.

France, 1944.

Deep into the French countryside, in a Catholic school where the Nazis have allowed the priests to run their classes, Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) is desperately attempting to gain the attention of Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto). Julien wants to be friends with Jean but there is hardly any chemistry between the two. In fact the two boys are very different: Julien is from an upper-class catholic family while Jean is Jewish.

As the war intensifies and the classes advance slowly but surely Julien and Jean will earn each other's respect. But not before they fight, make up, then fight again, and make up again…just as all kids do while they are growing.

When Julien's mother arrives at the catholic school to visit her son Jean is invited to join them for lunch. At the local restaurant the two boys witness how an older Jewish customer is humiliated by the local Nazi-watchers. Having discovered earlier that his friend's real name is not Jean, Julien is confused and deeply moved by the incident. Back at the school Julien will perform a tragic act that will stay with him forever.

It is a well known fact that much of Au Revoir Les Enfants was influenced by a true event that shattered Louis Malle's life. Yet, this is not a self-made confession which the director filmed in order to clear his soul from all the anger he has been living with during the years. Contrary to what many film critics deconstructing Au Revoir Les Enfants have claimed this is not a Holocaust film either! Yes, it is a story that deals with the ugliness of WW2 but it is not what a true period picture is supposed to unveil.

So, how does one describe Au Revoir Les Enfants then? Besides the obvious relation between Julien's character and Malle, Au Revoir Les Enfants is very much a film relying on the same deceptive structure so many of the director's earlier films do. What appears so easily discernible is in fact only the pretext for a much more complicated message which Malle has planted in his story. In Au Revoir Les Enfants it is not guilt that explains the film, it is the act of seeing, realizing, and learning to endure.

Lacombe Lucien (1974)

In a small town of the beautiful French countryside Lucien Lacombe has decided to join the Resistance. He is impatient, visibly excited, and ready to give himself to the cause. When Lucien's initiations however are turned down his enthusiasm quickly cools off and he makes a most unusual decision: he joins the local Nazi police.

Lucien Lacombe undergoes a remarkable transformation - the shy and naïve French peasant quickly grows into a vile and prejudiced man willing to snub those who once rejected him. He quickly points the local Resistance recruiter to the Nazis and demands justice. Slowly but surely Lucien would become as dedicated of a fascist as the tiny village has ever known.

With the new status and respect his job earns him Lucien is soon thrown into a most unusual situation. While accompanying his Nazi friends to a well-known Jewish tailor he is captivated by the beauty of his daughter. Lucien attempts to win her friendship but when he is unceremoniously rejected he becomes unspeakably evil. Lucien would often terrorize the Jewish tailor demanding that he either agrees to let his daughter see him or face the consequences of his disapproval.

During the years I have seen only one other film that somewhat matched the pure, authentic hatred that Louis Malle was able to channel through Lucien Lacombe. It was Henry Bean's The Believer (2001) based on the true-life story of a Jewish man who becomes a passionate anti-Semite. The story was brought to daylight by a New York Times reporter who investigated and consequently published his findings inspiring Henry Bean's film.

While The Believer however was rather straightforward and there was not much that the story did not reveal Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien uses a more balanced approach in revealing a boy's transformation from a passionate Resistance sympathizer to a committed Nazi activist. I did see however a major difference between the main protagonist in The Believer and the young Lucien Lacombe who appeared too confused and too unaware of the political weight his new job provided. It always seemed that he would only partially grasp the consequences of his actions long after those around him were affected by them. In Henry Bean's film the young Jewish man knew exactly what his hatred would produce.

As it was the case with Au Revoir Les Enfants Louis Malle's childhood provided plenty of inspiration for Lacombe Lucien. The indelible impression which the Nazi occupation left on the director is most certainly felt in this unusual story about moral degradation. Furthermore, the film plays heavily with the idea that between patriotism and degeneracy there is very little that separates the two. Certainly the hatred that fuels the latter is not far behind the passion that inspires the former.

How Does the DVD Look?

Murmur of the Heart

There is so much to be excited about looking at this magnificent print Criterion have provided for Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and enhanced for widescreen TV's the film looks absolutely gorgeous. Colors appear lush and vivid, contrast is at a near perfect level, edge enhancement is practically non-existent, and there wasn't a single spec of dust that I could notice. In addition, detail is very, very impressive and I could hardly see anything fans of Malle's film would be unhappy with. With all of this said allow me to point out to you that this new R1 version of Murmur of the Heart is miles ahead of the older R2 Italian print of the film which has been in circulation. I made a quick comparison and not only are the colors much more convincing (and true) in the Criterion release but one could easily see how inferior the Italian release is when placed next to the R1. Quite frankly this is as good as I have ever seen this film look.

Au Revoir Les Enfants

Preserving the original aspect ratio of the film 1.66:1 and enhancing it for widescreen TV's Criterion have once again provided a new, digitally-restored print, that shines. Once again detail is exceptionally good, contrast is impressive, colors are lush and well-saturated, and there is no print damage that I could spot. I suspect that considering the enormously high status this film enjoys amongst film aficionados the Criterion producers were pressed to deliver the best possible results and looking at how Au Revoir Les Enfants looks I can assure you that you will be utterly impressed with the presentation. As much as my memory serves me the film looks and feels exactly the same as when I first saw it.

Lacombe Lucien

Also presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and enhanced for widescreen TV's Lacombe Lucien looks fabulous. Colors are once again lush and very convincing, contrast is near-perfect, edge-enhancement is practically non-existent, and the print is free of any additional digital artifacts. Similar to the manner in which the other two films in this boxset are treated Lacombe Lucien has been digitally-cleaned up and I could not spot even a tiny dust spec or mark. Quite frankly this new and restored print should impress even the most-demanding of Malle's fans. Indeed, this entire set screams perfection in a manner we have come to regularly expect from Criterion.

How Does the DVD Sound?

Murmur of the Heart

Presented with its original French Dolby Digital 1.0 track and optional English subtitles Murmur of the Heart sounds exceptionally well. Matching the outstanding quality Criterion have mastered with the visual presentation the audio track for this film has also been digitally cleaned-up and it shows quite well. Listening to the dialog is easy and those who do not need English subtitles would find Criterion's usual quality well-represented in this new R1 release. I can not hear any issues worthy of discussion in this section. In French with optional English subtitles.

Au Revoir Les Enfants

Also presented with its original French Dolby Digital 1.0 track Au Revoir Les Enfants sounds equally impressive. The audio has most certainly been restored and listening to how crisp and clear the dialog is I can not be any happier with the results. This is typical high-quality Criterion job and it shows rather well. In French with optional English subtitles. Lacombe Lucien

The last film in the boxset gets a similar to the described above treatment. Presented with its original French Dolby Digital 1.0 track Lacombe Lucien does not reveal any issues that I was able to hear. Crisp, clear, and very convincing audio presentation ranks this DVD presentation next to the other two films in the Louis Malle boxset: typical Criterion perfectionism. In French with optional English subtitles.

Extras:

While each of the individual releases in this boxset offers only a teaser/trailer plus a massive booklet with essays dedicated to the films in the Louis Malle collection the boxset also offers a fourth disc of extras:

First off, there is an exclusive interview with Pierre Billard author of Louis Malle: le rebelle solitaire. The interview was recorded exclusively for the Criterion collection in July of 2005. Mr. Billard comments on a lot of the controversy surrounding Louis Malle's early films.
Next, there is an interview with actress and real-life partner Candice Bergen that was also exclusively recorded for Criterion in January of 2005. Mrs. Bergen recalls her experience with Louis Malle, his passion to travel America, and how most of his films reflected a certain aspect of his rich life.
Next, Le Pour le Cinema: a collection of excerpts that were shown on French TV relating to Murmur of the Heart and Lacombe Lucien. Both were recorded in the late 70s and feature comments by Louis Malle
Next, there is an audio recording titled "Louis Malle at the American Film Institute" which took place in Los Angeles in 1988. The audio recording provided for this DVD release has been edited.
Next, there are two audio interviews under the title "Louis Malle at the National Film Theatre in London. The first interview took place in 1974 while the second one was recorded in 1990.
Next, there is "Joseph: a Character study" by Guy Magin, a professor of film at the Paris University. This rather short extra explains how Joseph counterbalances the tragedy we see in Au Revoir Les Enfants. The most appropriate way to describe what the study represents is probably a character dissection which explains Malle's film from a different point of view.
Last but not least Criterion have chosen to provide Charlie Chaplin's 1917 classic film The Immigrant which appears shortly in Au Revoir Les Enfants.

Final Words:

Probably the best release to come out of Criterion's vaults this year this collection of three Louis Malle films is absolutely essential for any film lover that regards cinema as more than just a mindless piece of entertainment. The boxset contains arguably the best of what Louis Malle produced during the years. I am beyond impressed with the way my favorite Malle film Murmur of the Heart looks (the same could be said about the other two features as well). Last but not least the boxset comes with an affordable price tag hence I could not but give this collection the highest mark DVDTALK allows: The Collector Series.

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