Obituary: Louis Malle

There is a unique paradox to the career of Louis Malle, in that the film-critical establishment is split almost evenly between those who believe him to have been underrated and those, no less categorical, who believe him to have been overrated.

For his admirers, the apparent absence of an instantly perceptible directorial personality in his work was a mark of the director's versatility rather than his anonymity, the sign of a healthy refusal to have his films circumscribed by an overly refined fetishisation of subject-matter. For his detractors, he was a director possessed of a sensibility but bereft of an identifiable style in which to enshrine it (unlike many current young Hollywood directors, who are positively brimming with style but deficient in sensibility).

For those of us who have never been entirely convinced by the claims of his champions, Malle was an undeniably intelligent artist, subtle and observant, and a superb technician (he was the most celebrated graduate of IDHEC, the prestigious if not notably prolific French film school), who made films that were stylish instead of in any individual style. And, given the partiality of film critics for the eponymous qualifier (Bressonian, Fordian, Renoiresque, and so on), it's not by chance, nor merely because his monosyllabic name scarcely offers promising material for the exercise, that no one has ever employed, about his own or anyone else's work, the adjective "Mallian" or "Mallesque". Put bluntly, it would be meaningless.

Louis Malle was born, in 1932, in Thumeries, into one of France's most privileged industrialist families. He was educated at the Jesuit College in Fontainebleau and at the Sorbonne (where he majored in political science), before studying film at IDHEC between 1951 and 1953. On graduating, he was chosen by the oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau to be his technical assistant and effectively his cameraman on a series of extensive sea voyages, and he proved so indispensable to Cousteau that he ended up sharing with him the directorial credit on Le Monde de silence ("The Silent World", 1956), the most famous of all undersea documentaries. He also served his apprenticeshp as an assistant to Robert Bresson on Un Condamne a mort s'est echappe ("A Man Escaped", 1956), then made his first solo feature, Ascenseur pour l'echaufaud ("Lift to the Scaffold"), a slick and glossy thriller released in 1958.

That was just one year before the annus mirabilis of the New Wave, 1959, the year of Truffaut's Les 400 Coups, Godard's A bout de souffle and Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour, and Ascenseur pour l'echaufaud has often been cited as an influence on the movement. The question, however, is arguably one of precedence, not influence. Malle got there first. Yet, notwithstanding its fresh and freewheeling location photography, its modish Miles Davis score and the New Wavish presence of Jeanne Moreau, the basically conventional Ascenseur is as fatally caught between two very different "floors" of French film-making as its murderous protagonist is trapped in a stalled elevator.

This was to be, throughout his long career, the fundamental problem with Malle. Though he frequently tackled controversial subjects - explicit sexuality in Les Amants ("The Lovers", 1958, the film which made his name), suicide in Le Feu Follet ("The Fire Within", 1963), revolutionary politics in Viva Maria! (1965, teaming Moreau with Brigitte Bardot), anarchism in Le Voleur ("The Thief", 1967, with Jean-Paul Belmondo), incest in Le Souffle au coeur ("Murmur of the Heart", 1971), wartime collaboration in Lacombe, Lucien (1974), child prostitution in Pretty Baby (1978, his first American movie), the Holocaust in Au revoir, les enfants (1987), the 1968 riots in Milou en mai (1990) and middle-class adultery in Damage (1992) - the potential for scandal was invariably defused by his precautionary classicism, his knack for knowing, in Cocteau's expression, just how far to go too far, his dainty little three-steps-forward-two-steps-back minuet around the most shocking implications of his themes.

Thus Bardot and Moreau are revolutionaries in Viva Maria! - but, given that the movie is as close to being a cartoon as is conceivable without actually being drawn, not really. Belmondo is an anarchist in Le Voleur - but not entirely. The adolescent hero of Le Souffle au coeur may indeed sleep with his mother - but it's all giggled off in a closing tableau as though, in a family as heroically un- dysfunctional as that portrayed in the movie, incest were a peccadillo on the same larky level as belching at the dinner table. (Oedipus Schmoedipus - so long as you love your mother!) Lucien Lacombe is a collaborator - but he could just as easily, as unreflectingly, have been a resistant. The pre- pubescent Brooke Shields is a whore in Pretty Baby - then again, she somehow also contrives to remain just an innocent little girl. The evenements of May 1968 form merely an offscreen rumble in Milou en mai. And, with his script for Damage (based on Josephine Hart's best-selling novel), David Hare shows himself to be, as an analyst of marital infidelity, a direct successor to Sardou and Henry Arthur Jones.

Fair's fair, though. There are incidental pleasures to be savoured in nearly all of these films and Malle had his share of real and durable triumphs. Zazie dans le Metro (1960) is an uncanny visualisation of Queneau's (on paper) unfilmable novel, whose success can be measured by the fact that it does not send one back to the book. Lacombe, Lucien and Au revoir les enfants are still the two finest (fictional) films about the Occupation. Black Moon (1975) is a weird and wonderful Carrollian fantasy, which, if Malle's personal favourite of his own work, has never been properly appreciated. Atlantic City (1980), about a gentle old gangster adrift in the garish resort of the title, is graced by a lovely, late performance by Burt Lancaster. My Dinner with Andre (1981) is a droll conceit, a genuine dinner for two on which we, the spectators, are invited to eavesdrop. And his numerous documentaries, particularly the six-hour television series Phantom India (1969), doubtless merit reappraisal.

Right to the end of his career, Malle was therefore an unclassifiable talent, a director for whom even posterity may have some difficulty finding the relevant niche in the Pantheon of cinema history, for he was neither a journeyman nor an auteur, neither one thing nor another - just like his films.

Gilbert Adair

Louis Malle, film director: born Thumeries, Nord, France 30 October 1932; married Anne-Marie Deschodt (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1967), 1980 Candice Bergen (one daughter); died Beverly Hills, California 23 November 1995.

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