Louis Malle, born 1932, didn’t come from an artistic background. His family ran one of the largest sugar companies in France and Louis was expected to follow in the family business, but instead he chose to study filmmaking. After graduating, he worked as an assistant for Robert Bresson on A Man Escaped before being hired to co-direct Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s documentary feature The Silent World, which went on to win an Oscar. Then, in 1957, Malle was given the chance to direct his first fiction feature, L’ascenseur pour l’échafaud. That film, plus three others of his first five, is included in this box set from Optimum. (The exception is 1962’s Vie Privée, known as A Very Private Affair in English, a little-regarded vehicle for Brigitte Bardot.)
L’ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958) (87:40, Certificate PG)
Although Malle arrived just as the New Wave was about to break, he was never really part of it. The key New Wave filmmakers began as critics, and took an overtly personal, often iconoclastic approach to the medium. Malle, on the other hand, is primarily a proficient craftsman, moving from genre to genre and usually working within them rather than overtly breaking them, though at his best injecting something of himself into the story. On the other hand, Malle’s worst films can seem simply anonymous.
In subject matter, L’ascenseur (Lift to the Scaffold in the UK, Elevator to the Gallows in the USA) is a noirish crime thriller. Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) is having an affair with his boss’s wife Florence Cavala (Jeanne Moreau). They plan to kill her husband and make it look like a suicide. All goes well until Julien sees that he has left the rope he used to climb in Cavala’s office window. So he goes back inside, just as the building is being shut down and the power turned off… A complex plot ensues with Julien seemingly disappearing, despite Florence’s attempts to find him (he’s stuck in the lift overnight), and Julien coming under suspicion for another murder that he didn’t commit rather than for the one he did commit.
If the storyline is traditional, if certainly well-wrought, two stylistic innovations made the public and the critics sit up and pay attention. Firstly, taking advantage of faster film stock, the cinematographer Henri Decaë shot much of the film in natural light, and Moreau was often filmed without makeup. This horrified the lab technicians who at first refused to process the film, thinking the result most unflattering to a star of Moreau’s calibre. But the result was a breakthrough performance for the actress and the start of a partnership with Malle. This realistic style was influential on the New Wave – in fact, Decaë shot Truffaut’s first feature, The Four Hundred Blows just two years later.
Malle’s second innovation was musical. Instead of a conventional score, he had a jazz quintet led by Miles Davis improvise to a screening of the film. The result became one of the best-known scores of its time and had a life outside the film in which it played a vital part. The musicians were Davis on trumpet, Barney Wilen on tenor sax, René Urtreger on piano, Pierre Michelot on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums.
Lift to the Scaffold remains an excellent thriller which, despite some implausibilities in the plot, which over forty years later remains pleasurable in its ironic twists and turns.
Les amants (1958) (86:54, Certificate 15)
If Ascenseur was driven by its plot, Malle’s follow-up, Les amants (The Lovers) is an exercise in pure atmosphere. Also photographed by Henri Decaë, and still in black and white, the film exchanges the claustrophobic 1.66:1 of the earlier film for Scope, Malle’s first feature in the wider format. The story is very simple. Jeanne (Jeanne Moreau) is the bored wife of rich Henri (Alain Cuny) but is attracted to Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory), a young man staying as a house guest. We know she is attracted to him early on, and this culminates in a half-hour sequence one night where this attraction is consummated, both in bed and in the bath.
These scenes, with a hint at cunnilingus, were daringly erotic for their day, provoking an adult-only rating in France, bans and lawsuits in the USA and a cut by the BBFC for an X certificate. The film won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and made Moreau an international star. It’s been long since surpassed as far as explicitness goes (though it’s still enough for a 15 certificate) so anyone looking for cheap thrills had better go elsewhere. Les amants, like Le feu follet, is best appreciated as an exercise in atmosphere, with Decaë’s camerawork and the use of Brahms on the soundtrack helping considerably. Otherwise there’s not a lot to it.
Zazie dans le Métro (88:50, Certificate 12)
Zazie is based on a book by Raymond Queneau, about the anarchic adventures of a young girl in Paris. Precocious eight-year-old Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) is staying with her uncle (Philippe Noiret), a female impersonator, and has one ambition: to take a ride on the Metro. But fate conspires to thwart her.
Despite having a child at its centre, Zazie is most definitely not a children’s film. Zazie’s potty mouth and some sexual references were enough to earn the film a X certificate on its first release (it’s a 12 now). In making this film, his first feature in colour, Malle aimed to emulate Queneau’s very stylised prose by indulging in quite a few cinematic tricks of his own: fast and slow motion, heavily drawing on silent slapstick comedies for his inspiration. However, he shows an inappropriately heavy hand in this comedy. While it’s certainly worth a look for curiosity’s sake – especially for Malle fans – it’s too frenetic to be particularly funny and many will find that Zazie seems in great need of a good slap. Henri Raichi’s colour photography of Paris – traditionally, a monochrome city – is suitably eye-popping, and the film’s best asset.
Le feu follet (103:45, Certificate 12)
After Zazie, Malle and DP Ghislain Cloquet made a short documentary film on the Tour de France, Vive le Tour!, which is included as an extra on the Zazie disc in this set and discussed below. Cloquet stayed on board or Malle’s next feature, Le feu follet, which is one of Malle’s best films.
Le feu follet is known by several English titles. It’s subtitled on this DVD with its American title, The Fire Within, but it’s also sometimes referred to as Will o’ the Wisp (an accurate translation of the French title) or A Time to Live and a Time to Die. However it’s known, it’s a film – like Les amants - which is best seen as an exercise in atmosphere and mood. In both films there’s little plot as such, and what there is is foreseeable in advance. In Les amants Jeanne is attracted to Bernard almost from the outset, the film then building up to the inevitable act of love. Le feu follet, by contrast, leads up to an act of death. Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet) leaves the clinic where he was being treated for alcoholism. He is determined to kill himself, and for the next twenty-four hours as he meets old friends and attends a dinner party he looks for a way to carry on living.
The film was based on a 1931 novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, who himself committed suicide in 1945 after collaborating with the Nazis. Considering how unlikeable Alain is – he’s selfish and immature, hoping with his suicide to punish those around him – it’s remarkable how unsentimental and affecting Malle’s film is. This is as much due to Ronet’s performance, the spare solo piano of Erik Satie’s music and Cloquet’s camerawork, a masterclass in the use of black and white to sustain a tone and mood. However, it’s not difficult to see why this film, for all its quality, failed at the box office, and equally you can see how Malle would want to kick back and do something much more lighthearted, namely a historical extravaganza in colour and Scope, starring two of the cinema’s most glamorous women, namely Viva Maria!.
Optimum’s release of the Louis Malle Collection: Volume 1 consists of four dual-layer discs, each encoded for Region 2 only. (Volume 2 has five films: Le souffle au coeur, Black Moon, Lacombe Lucien, Au Revoir les Engants and Milou en Mai.) Criterion have released several Malle films in the USA. The most notable overlap with the present set – outside French editions – is their DVD of Elevator to the Gallows, but I do not have a copy of that for comparison.
The three black and white films all have anamorphic transfers in their original ratios – 1.66:1 for Ascenseur and Le feu follet, 2.35:1 for Les amants. The films have certainly been kept in good condition, and I have no real issues with the transfers except that they are a little soft but not distractingly so. Grain is certainly present but it seems natural and filmlike. The anomaly is Zazie. The film begins with restoration credits, and it’s certainly true that the colours are suitably bright and vibrant. However, Zazie is presented in 4:3 and I’m not convinced that’s the correct ratio, especially as this is a film that I have seen in the cinema. Certainly some French directors did use Academy Ratio for 35mm-shot fiction features (Rohmer and Rivette until the 1980s and 1990s), but I’m not convinced that Malle is one of them. As I’ve said above, he’s a director who worked more in the commercial industry, in specific genres, than the far more personal work of Rohmer or the avant-garde Rivette. Given that two of the other films in this set are in the ratio, and judging by eye from the amount of headroom in shot, I would suggest that 1.66:1 would be the intended ratio. However, zooming the film to 16:9 on a widescreen set would likely make the compositions too tight, and it also cuts off the subtitles. As for the latter, they are fixed on all four discs, which will be an issue for anyone fluent enough in French to be able to do without them.
No issues at all about the soundtracks, which are in mono as they should be. Dialogue, sound effects and (particularly important) music are all well-balanced and there is no obvious distortion. Each film has twelve chapter stops.
Each disc has a short interview with Vincent Malle, the director’s brother. These seem to be extracts from one long interview conducted in 2006 by Paul Ryan especially for Optimum, and presumably will continue for the five films in Volume 2. Malle’s discussion of the films is quite short (respectively 6:54, 5:00, 7:15, 6:53) but he’s an engaging speaker (in English) and evidently proud of and knowledgeable about his late brother’s work. Malle’s interviews are the only extras on the Les amants and Le feu follet.
Ascenseur has another interview, which will be of particular interest to fans of jazz and Miles Davis in particular. This is with René Urtreger, the pianist in the quartet who improvised the score. Speaking in French, Urtreger talks about how the assignment came up, and discusses working with Davis and the varying roles in a jazz band. This interview runs 14:48.
The Zazie disc also features a second interview, with Jean-Paul Rappeneau, cowriter with Louis Malle on the screenplay. Rappeneau is now a director of some repute himself, with Cyrano de Bergerac and The Horseman on the Roof. Rappeneau was introduced to Malle by Alain Cavalier and after other projects fell through they decided to film Queneau’s novel, which had turned him from a cult writer into a popular success. The trademark of Queneau’s style was his “bastardisation” of language – incorporating a classical style with slang and pastiche, and Rappeneau discusses Malle’s attempts to find visual equivalents to this. However, although he likes certain parts of it he’s clear-eyed about the film’s failings – in his words, it’s not so much funny as frightening. Rappeneau speaks in French and his interview runs 10 minutes exactly. The Vincent Malle interviews are 16:9 anamorphic, the other two are 4:3.
On the same disc is the short film Malle made in 1962, Vive le Tour!. This is a wry documentary essay on the Tour de France, photographed in colour by Ghislain Cloquet, presumably in 16mm, which at 17:51 doesn’t outstay its welcome. It is presented in 4:3.
Malle is probably less an “auteur” than some of his contemporaries, preferring not to impose a signature style on his work but to adapt his style and technique to different subject matter in a variety of genres. That’s not to say that his works are impersonal: working generally in commercial cinema he was in Martin Scorsese’s phrase a “smuggler”, bringing his own perspective in under cover of whichever genre he was working in. And the proof is that he made some very fine films (and certainly some duds) over a forty-year career. Not all of these four early features are great but all have plenty of interest and they are generally presented well.