The term 'coming of age film' has come to mean any movie in which a young character discovers love or has a sexual encounter. It's associated mostly with raunchy comedies, and occasional 'sensitive' accounts of an idealistic youth's process of disillusionment.
Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart (Le souffle au coeur, 1971) is a vastly more complicated item. Its curious young hero refuses to be disillusioned by anything -- the bad habits of his brothers, his mixed-up family relationships, his own medical condition or the state of his country in 1954, suffering military defeat in Indochina. Young Laurent Chevalier's ultimately incestuous activities with his mother are obviously an affront to legal and moral rules of conduct. But in Malle's loving family portrait, it's best not to judge on outside appearances.
A description of Murmur of the Heart makes it sound as if Sin in all of its splendor had arrived in bourgeois 1950s France. Our young hero is a champion scholar and a jazz fan but he's also shoplifts, smokes, masturbates and plagues the house staff along with his two older and irrepressible brothers. Their respected father pays the bills but is left out of the crazy relationship between his younger Italian wife Clara and her sons. An outsider might conclude that her casual habits with them contribute to their delinquency. She calls Laurent by a pet Italian name and heavily favors him. The boy is initially crushed to find that she's unfaithful to his father but instead grows to worship his mother all the more. He proclaims himself to be her friend as well as her son and tells her that whatever she does is fine with him.
Laurent's physical heart irregularity is a cause for distress but is also a symptom of the nature of love: Many activities in the Chevalier household would be difficult to explain in a courtroom, but in this particular family we don't see the threat. Although the sons play wicked tricks on their elders and basic laws of propriety are broken in all directions, the basic family fabric isn't harmed.
Murmur of the Heart puts its extreme content into a context that encourages us to be non-judgmental. Young Laurent seems a sorry excuse for an altar boy until we meet his confessor and teacher Father Henri (Michael Lonsdale). The priest encourages Laurent's academic life but clearly has his own sexual problems relating to the boys in his care -- he definitely likes to touch Laurent's legs. Brothers Thomas and Marc torment the hired help and get away with murder whenever they have the house to themselves, and yet nobody seems to want them to behave better. Even father indulges their rude political comments at family dinner parties. Underneath the chaos the brothers are good guys; after giving Laurent a hard time for admiring Albert Camus, they openly compliment his academic achievements.
Director Louis Malle was noted for gravitating toward controversial sexual content involving children, as evidenced by the attention given to Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby. Murmur of the Heart provoked quite a fuss over its depiction of incest between mother and son, and yet the film treats the situation in as un-exploitative a manner as is conceivable. Laurent's mother is an Italian outsider from a less cultured background and her husband has little time for her. Her sensuality isn't an evil force but a natural component of her personality that can't be ignored. Young Laurent is already fixated on her in a way he doesn't understand. Their momentary physical affection can't be seen in black & white terms -- affection is what holds these people so strongly together.
In simple terms, Laurent's crush on his mother is something he has to get beyond, and he does. Their experience together is a mistake, but not something to obsess over. The film is about particular people and doesn't prescribe their experience for anyone else. As if refusing to accept the idea that crushing guilt and misery must accompany every transgression of moral laws, Murmur of the Heart ends on a wonderful note of harmony.
It's also wickedly funny, from the brothers' cocky attitudes to Laurent's obnoxious behavior at the St. Tropez clinic resort where he and his mother retreat for his cure. Marc urinates in his mother's sink and a drunken Laurent insults a group of women by calling their daughters lesbians. Malle's sympathetic direction insures that neither these minor outrages nor Laurent's sexual curiosity for his mother come off as raunchy or gratuitous. Laurent finally decides to go on the prowl in their hotel at 3 a.m.. Rejected by one sleepy, shocked girl, he calmly asks her for the room number of a second teenager, who is more accommodating!
Murmur of the Heart is a captivating emotional experience, told in a matter-of-fact way by a director genuinely fascinated by human behavior. The casting is inspired, with young Benoît Ferreux an unusually expressive young actor. Lea Massari is also very successful in a difficult role ... there's a broad gulf between this picture and the liberated sex comedies of stars like Laura Antonelli.
Louis Malle again proves himself a filmmaker without a fixed agenda or themes. Although the film presents a flawed priest it has no satirical aim, unlike Malle's earlier action spoof Viva Maria! with its cartoon-ish Catholic villains. A decade later his Au revoir les enfants would enshrine the Father Superior of a boy's school as an unimpeachable saint. For all the talk about the 70s being an era of liberal permissiveness, few of its pictures depict human sexuality as positively as this French gem. 1
Criterion's DVD of Murmur of the Heart is a beautiful, sharp and accurately colored presentation of one of Louis Malle's finest films. The excellent soundtrack has snippets from young Laurent's favorite Jazz greats like Charlie Parker, the ones that, Laurent tells us, drink and use drugs to be such great artists. It's presented uncut and enhanced with a 1:66 aspect ratio.
Disc producer Kate Elmore also provides an insert booklet with a fine essay by critic Michael Sragow. The disc is available separately or in the pricey but excellent box set 3 Films by Louis Malle: Lacombe, Lucien and Au revoir les enfants. That box comes with an extra disc of supplements that include career and biographical features on the director, including an interview with his wife Candice Bergen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Murmur of the Heart rates:
1. It is of course understandable that viewers informed that Murmur of the Heart deals with mother-son incest may choose not to see the film on principle. This reviewer found Murmur of the Heart inoffensive and genuinely sympathetic to human behavior without regard to specific rules of morality. By contrast, a truly offensive early 70s film was The Harrad Experiment, an exploitative adaptation of a book about an experimental school in which kids were encouraged to be sexually active. About 5% of Harrad is glib-speak about turning society's values around by embracing open sexuality, and the rest is the most insipid, smarmy sensationalism imaginable. Murmur of the Heart has nothing in common with this kind of movie; it doesn't condone or condemn anything.