There is an almost inescapable infectiousness beaming from and residing in Louis Malle's best films. His vibrancy and effervescence, when judiciously meshed with a compelling, mythic anecdote—both of which he himself crafted with singular delicacy—is simply irresistible. It has doubtless often been said that Murmur of the Heart, like other Malle pictures, is a filmic essaying of innocence lost, but that is itself a faux pas. Malle's work, not irregularly maligned by critics who soured on Malle's admittedly tartly acidulous aromatic palette, is best consumed with a suspicion—not of his intentions but of his art, which seems to serve as a rejoinder to the oft-repeated phrase, trust the art, not the artist (which naturally remains true in Malle's case as well). Malle's films are about innocence, period, even when it is politically, sociologically or culturally skewed, benighted and spiritually subjugated to the banalities of polity, as in the mesmeric tarry through callow fascism that is Lacombe, Lucien. Malle's cinema—imbued with an innate plausibility, but purified by a tinting of phantasmagoria—is arrestingly deceptive without resorting to duplicity.
Murmur of the Heart stars Lea Massari and Benoit Ferreux (in his first film) as Clara Chevalier and her adolescent son, Laurent, in 1954 France. As in other Malle pictures, the main pubescent-to-young adult character's insouciance is juxtaposed with the geopolitical tumult that either directly or circuitously informs his peregrination into variegated definitions of manhood, most commonly finding sexual awakening, arousal and action as the definitive fulcrum against which all else pivots. The aforementioned Lacombe, Lucien made Malle's most trenchant points concerning wartime collaboration as seen through ambling indifference—ascetically apolitical in its painterly construction but highly, almost obdurately uncompromising in its most sweeping aspects of efficaciously rendered prevarication (Lacombe's chief imperious/sexual conquest and annexation is of the pulchritudinous girl named France Horn)—but with the earlier Murmur of the Heart, Malle's edifice remained with the entanglements of the familial. As reports stream into the consciousness of Frenchmen from the losing contest in Indochina, Laurent—who, in the film's prologue is found with a friend soliciting random people for aid for wounded veterans of the colonial strife—blossoms in both expected and unexpected ways. This is a most particularly oedipal telling of the nuanced love between a son and mother.
Like Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows, the son, here Laurent, catches his mother engaging in extramarital love affairs. The love that once deeply marked the Italian-born mother's marriage to her gynecologist French husband, for whom she produced three sons—Laurent being the youngest—has been replaced by gentle but occasionally uncomfortable silences and arguments recurrently about Laurent's nature, with the nearly overprotective mother protesting that the misbehaving child is sensitive as her husband merely throws up his hands and refers to him as a pain in the neck. “He used to be so jealous,” Clara Chevalier tells her son late in the picture. At this time, however, Clara finds herself searching for excitement and warmth of feeling from other men. Laurent's sexual confusion and deep, abiding affection for his mother collide as he catches glimpses of her running off with other men. Clara will tease him late in the film: “You're my little, jealous French husband!” The relationship between Clara and her son doubtless inspires interest from receptive Freudians.
What partly separates Malle's pictures from many others is their curious, salient repetition of movement and form. Like the heartbroken, lonely solitary figure walking seemingly aimlessly about the arid night in Elevator to the Gallows, Murmur of the Heart's cohesion—seen from Laurent's point-of-view, but legitimately adjoined to his equally cogent and misaligned multi-peopled portraitures orbiting his mother—is made up of confident visual enactments that prop up Malle's thematic touchstones. In Murmur of the Heart, these are repeatedly quite funny. One especially rewarding sequence follows Laurent's delirious older brothers playing “spinach tennis” with one another, flinging globs of spinach to one another's plate from across the dinner table. Much later in the film, the actual sport of tennis will become a metaphorical simile for the battle of the sexes, and how the entire war is a stupendously childish game of a different sort, one of Malle's most propitiously important revisited themes.
What ultimately enriches Murmur of the Heart, however, is its densely literate subtexts. In one subtle scene, a brother of Laurent's hands him reading material: “Proust to entertain you and Tintin to instruct you.” As Laurent chastises a shallow suitor for Clara's affections at a health spa, he points to the intelligence of Proust. “But you don't read Jewish writers,” Laurent notes of the apparently nationalistic, colonialist-leaning young man. “A country is nothing without colonies. Look at the English,” Clara's suitor remarks. The allusions to Proust are important to examine, as they hint at Malle's narrative structure. Murmur of the Heart is fundamentally a retelling of Proust's “Within a Budding Grove, Volume 2” from “In Search of Lost Time.” The connective tissue is myriad in its configurations. Malle's health spa—which Laurent, like the story's narrator, is a sick child, attends for the sake of his heart which suffers from murmurs—appears to be a stand-in for Proust's Balbec; the pretty blonde girl Helene seems to be inspired by Proust's Albertine, who in both the story and Malle's film is suspected to be a lesbian; like the narrator, Laurent seeks to sexualize his relationship with Helene/Albertine—Proust's delineation followed the narrator's quest to kiss Albertine whereas the sexually fixated Laurent attempts to bed Helen; and like the narrator, Laurent professes a consummate love for his mother (which again, in Malle's tale, is more acutely sexualized).
As in Lacombe, Lucien and other Malle films, from the mutedly despairing, futuristic parable of the war between the sexes, Black Moon to another rendering of maladjusted childhood fantasia and tragic malignity, Au revoir les enfants, male dream-manufacturing, like spools from which airy cotton candy are proliferated, finds both reward and dejection, elation and despondence, in the ecstatic reverie of dazed abstraction. Where Murmur of the Heart differentiates itself from both Malle's earlier and later work is that its playfulness is more earnest—and therefore brighter and truer all at once—because the child is truly enraptured with not only a conception but a real-world visage of nearly ineffable familiarity and closeness. Oedipal or not, the relationship—superbly brought to life by the effortlessly charming child actor Ferreux and the window of the mortal divine that the impossibly endearing Massari most palpably represents—somehow resides beyond all of his other explications of humans in all of their confounding complexities. Profundity of a peculiarly alien, ethereal kind presents itself in Malle's exquisite denouement. After everything, all the Chevalier brood can do is laugh together, giggling and chuckling, chortling and cackling, in a fit of sustained cachinnation, surveying not so much the world—which for all of national and intimate changes, in immeasurable and decipherable ways alike, coupling the political with the sexual, has not been irreparably altered after all—but themselves. As with almost anyone with any hint of modesty, self-awareness and humility, they have burst together, as in the most reasonable reaction to a sustained episode of looking into a mirror.