Like its protagonist, Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart is intelligent, complicated, sensitive, exuberant. The crucial difference is Malle's perspective, a quality which his young hero Laurent Chevalier naturally lacks as he navigates the path from boyhood to manhood. Malle's deceptively simple narrative agenda allows for a relaxed but never meandering exploration of a middle-class upbringing in 1954 France. On the way to Laurent's awareness (and ours), Malle never forgets to entertain and involve his audience; ultimately, Murmur of the Heart movingly evokes the aching joy of growing pains.
Malle wastes no time in establishing fourteen-year-old Laurent (Benoît Ferreux, in his screen debut). Jazz music and cinematic jazz meet in the handheld opening title sequence, as Laurent and a friend bop around Dijon. Ostensibly, they're collecting money for the troops in Indochina, but actually they're hanging out, culminating in the shoplifting of a Charlie Parker record. Laurent reveals he's been seduced by the exotic-tragic-sexy lifestyle of jazzmen. Even Parker's nervous breakdown seems attractive to Laurent, coming as it has on the heels of alcohol, drugs, and women.
Laurent will dabble in those vices under the wings of his two piggish, fun-loving older brothers. Matters remain nominally under control in the Chevalier household when the boys' gynecologist father Charles (Daniel Gélin) is around. When père's away, his children play by lashing out at the hands that feed them: literally, by horridly mistreating the help, and figuratively by mocking their upper-middle-class life of privilege even as they enjoy it (while hosting a wild party, the older brothers concoct a plan to humiliate their father by proving his bourgeois tastelessness).
The father is more preoccupied by the problems of his blithe-spirit wife Clara (Lea Massari) and youngest son Laurent, whose sensitivity is a bone of contention. "He's your son," Charles tells Clara, and he's right. Laurent can be a thief, liar, and rebel around town and at school (where he's the smartest in his class). At home, however, he's his mother's pet, eagerly welcoming her warm attention. Like Laurent, the Italian-born Clara is a free-spirited outsider (indeed, she frequently escapes into the arms of a lover). Ignoring her sons' faults indirectly to excuse her own, Clara is all about the love.
Remarking in passing that "There's no childhood anymore," Laurent acknowledges his own restless transition. Even as he hurtles toward manhood, Laurent grapples with adult pettiness, betrayals, and corruption (an atheist, the boy must contend with a horny priest at school). A sequence set in a militaristic scout camp reflects the colonial shame of the time and provides the setting for a pointed retelling of Goethe's The Erlking (about a father's failed protectiveness against temptation).
Health complications (the heart murmur of the title) bolster Laurent's fatalistic suspicions as he stews over his mother's infidelity. Ironically, the crisis intensifies the relationship of mother and son when they relocate to the accidentally close quarters of a spa-hotel. Clothes, too, reveal the truth: at first, he's quite evidently growing out of them, gangly limbs sprouting past cuffs. Later, Laurent will don his mother's pink robe, a gesture of his loyalty to her, his kinship with her, and his desires to fully understand and possess her, body and soul.
This latter problem of incestuous intensity gives Malle his surprisingly gentle climax, one that's not merely earned, but the only logical culmination of the film's every observational detail (a passing reference to Camus, that "perhaps action is a way of avoiding suicide," informs the in vino veritas breakthrough). In a progressive expression of personal truth, Clara notes, "There are different ways of loving."
With Murmur of the Heart, Malle walks us through the sun and the shadows of adolescent longing and awkward maturation. The ambiguous ending, then, is a perfect capper, fashioned by Malle without the stylistic flourish of a Bergman or Fellini but all of their generous humanism and invention. In all their messiness, here are love, sex, society, and family, met with cleansing laughter.
Criterion's DVD edition of Murmur of the Heart is available as a single-disc (with a $29.95 MSRP), or as part of the 3 Films By Louis Malle box set. The film has never looked better on home video—the high-def transfer was supervised by cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich. The mono soundtrack is well-preserved, and newly translated subtitles well represent Malle's script. The single disc includes a humorous original theatrical trailer (3:07) with catchy allusions ("The 400 Blows to the heart"), and a twenty-page booklet features an essay by critic Michael Sragow.
For greater contextualization of the film, film buffs are well-advised to spring for the box set, with two more Malle classics (Lacombe Lucien and Au revoir les enfants) and a bonus disc of extensive extras. "Pierre Billard on Louis Malle" (30:40) sits Malle acquaintance and biographer Billard to discuss the intersection of the filmmaker's life and work (particularly Malle's rebellion, spirit of discovery, artistic ambiguity, and controversial role in French cinema). "Candice Bergen" (13:31) finds the late director's wife reflect on her husband's art, work ethic, and personality (Bergen focuses on the Au revoir les enfants period, recalling a set visit she made and the awards-circuit roller coaster).
Criterion also includes two excerpts from French series Pour le cinéma: "On Murmur of the Heart" (7:48) and "On Lacombe Lucien" (11:58). Both full-screen black-and-white segments include contemporaneous comments by Malle and clips from the films. From the archives of the American Film Institute and London's National Film Theatre come three invaluable recordings: AFI's 1988 Harold Lloyd Master Seminar with Malle (53:06) and NFT Q&As from 1974 (40:47) and 1990 (52:55). The wide-ranging discussions touch on all three of the films included, and quite a bit more (such as Malle's good-natured hesitation—and tentative plan—to work professionally with Bergen).
The bonus disc also showcases the complete 1917 Charlie Chaplin short "The Immigrant" (25:11)—seen, in part, in Au revoir les enfants (the version here is a Kino print with a lackluster Michael Mortilla score). Rounding out the bonus disc is a 2005 short film, "The Character of Joseph as seen by Guy Magen" (5:20). A critical film essay in film form, Magen's piece sagely explicates the key supporting character from Au revoir les enfants. 3 Films By Louis Malle gathers three thematically related masterworks by a filmmaker whose statue is likely to continue to rise with time—given the deluxe Criterion treatment, film fans will find the package irresistible.
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