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.

News
i100
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Consultant - Bristol - Computer Futures - £18-25k

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Real Staffing - Leeds - £18k+

£18000 - £27000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Sales - Trainee Recruitment Co...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester - Progressive Rec.

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Progressive Recruitment are cu...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices