The eclectic French director Louis Malle made comedies, character studies, documentaries, Hollywood movies, and provocative stories about sex. In fact, it’s often difficult to find a single authorial voice guiding his work. Somewhat like the American filmmaker John Huston, Malle was a curious intellectual who found a style to suit each project. Within Malle’s expansive filmography, however, certain movies contain aspects of veiled autobiography. For instance, Malle has said that Murmur of the Heart is a flight of fancy borrowing facts from his real life, whereas Au revoir les enfants (1987) re-creates actual events. In some ways, Murmur of the Heart is Malle’s most challenging film, owing equally to content and style. The style is episodic and loose, with a clear narrative purpose emerging only toward the end of the film’s running time. The content, put bluntly, is incest—played not for shock value but, unbelievably, for warmth.
As did the young Louis Malle, 15-year-old Laurent (Benoit Ferreux) lives a privileged existence, grooving on American jazz records and savoring the doting attention of his beautiful mother, Clara (Lea Mssari). After various misadventures involving his brothers, including a colorful visit to a brothel, Laurent is diagnosed with a heart murmur. (This, too, happened to the real Malle.) Clara accompanies Laurent to a sanitarium, which is part medical facility and part vacation resort. Adding complexity to the situation is Laurent’s knowledge that Clara has been cheating on Laurent’s father. Concurrently, Clara encourages Laurent’s romance with a fellow patient at the sanitarium, a pretty young lady Laurent’s age. The end result of these events is that Laurent and Clara arrive at an unusual level of intimacy—they’re like best friends, each pushing the other to be his or her ideal self. One drunken evening, they express their intimacy in bed. Malle’s handling of the scene is remarkably sensitive and subtle, so the moment feels neither romanticized nor sensationalized. It simply happens, and it feels like the believable culmination of a unique relationship—a secret but not a sin.
Although the way Malle threads this particular needle is the most unusual aspect of Murmur of the Heart, it’s but one of many fine things the filmmaker achieves. He depicts Laurent as a complex and dimensional individual, no small feat when portraying adults, to say nothing of young people, and he paints a vivid picture of life among the Gallic intelligentsia during the heyday of France’s Vietnam entanglement. Nothing in this movie is pat or tidy, so the piece sometimes feels unruly. And yet once Malle arrives at the critical moment, it’s clear he needed to travel down myriad pathways in order to explain the critical encounter. The great accomplishment of the film is helping viewers understand something that should, in the abstract, be incomprehensible. Better still, the film never asks viewers to make a value judgment; like all of Malle’s best movies, Murmur of the Heart illustrates the unexpected places that people go, asking the audience only for empathy.
Murmur of the Heart: GROOVY