Friday, April 3, 2009

Murmur of the Heart (1971)

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.


Larry said...

Impeccable essay. Truly magnificent, Mr. Coleman. Louis Malle's masterpiece has never received a more probing examination.

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thank you very much, Larry. I'm humbled by your high praise.

Sam Juliano said...

Now here is a director who straddles the line of master class, and both MURMUR OF THE HEART, which you review here, and LACOMBE LUCIEN (which you make ample reference to) are exceedingly good films that are surely among their maker's finest. And yes as you rightly note there is surely a "vibrancy and effervescence among Malle's best works."

I liked this statement in describing Malle's central concern with this sensual film: "Malle's edifice remained with the entanglements of the familial," and the Oedipal relationship takes center stage. So much of what you say here is astute and beautifully expressed, like for example the reference to that indellible "spinach tennis" segment, the assertion that a 'battle of the sexes' is being played out here, the thematic and literary link to Proust, and the mentioning later of AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS as that "maladjusted childhood fantasia."

Of course I don't think there's any question that Malle's real aim in MURMUR is to paint a scathing portrait of the French bourgeoisie. The promiscuity in sexual matters that defines French society then and now takes flight in this film, where Malle basically lets everyone at the end get away with their "sins" and live happier.

This was some sentence here:

"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."

Tremendous review of a very good film and an essential director.

bARE-eYED sUN said...

unfortunately, poor schlobs such as we don't know what the heck you're writing. but, you DO write it well.


fun trying to plow through it, though.

thanks for the review. {it was a GOOD review, right?}


irwin said...

you have finally redeemed yourself with your review of point break. a decent review for once

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Sam--I have just received your latest, fantastic series of emails but unfortunately Comcast is misbehaving and not allowing me to answer you!! I'm deeply sorry for this. Thank you for the emails and I promise to get back to you once Comcast rights itself. For now, allow me to encourage you to check in on my Point Blank review as I'm taking the weekend off from blogging. :-)

Thank you for all of the kind comments here, and I'm happy that you enjoyed this look at one of Malle's best films. I agree with you, of course, that Malle is taking aim at the "bourgeoisie." Thanks again!

bARE-e-YED-sUN, thank you for the kind words. Yes, I do like this film a great deal, indeed. :-)

Tony D'Ambra said...

Alexander, it has been over 30 years since I saw Murmur of the Heart, and as a coming of age film it is engaging, as Malle has more affection than contempt for the bourgeoisie in this film. But the incest is dishonestly given the gossamer treatment, and the closet racism of the French and Malle himself is manifest in the mother being made an Italian. Lacombe, Lucien by comparison is a much more honest effort.

Film-Book dot Com said...

I saw this film in French Cinema Appreciation Class. Funny, cool (capturing adolescence well) with an unbelievable ending.

ratatouille's archives said...

Bonjour! Alexander,

I must "seek" this film out! to watch, but of course...I think your review is very well written and you point out the main details about this film in the most "subtleness" of way(s).
I must admit that I'am very "happy" to read Tony's opinion too!...because I really do appreciate "opposing" views, about a film,(or films) book,(or books) etc, etc, etc... before I watch a film or read a book for the first time.

Merci! Alexander,

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Tony, I find your thoughts on this film quite fascinating. I must say I think your way of putting it--Malle's essaying of the eventual incest of the film as being the "gossamer treatment"--is rather accurate. It could be said to be a major flaw, but somehow I don't think that particular act is what the film is truly "about," so to speak. Your consideration of Malle's choice of having the mother be Italian is quite stinging. Quite a collection of fecund thoughts, especially for someone who hasn't seen this film in over 30 years, Tony!

Film-Book Dot Com, that is great that you saw this film in French film appreciation class. Thank you for those thoughts.

Dark City Dame, thank you for your openness and your thoughts as well. I agree that all perspectives should be weighed with (and against) one another, especially for someone who wants to see a film like yourself. Thanks again.

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Joel Bocko said...

Interesting observations, Tony. I only saw this film a few years ago but I can't recall what you refer to as the "closet racism" of the do you feel the casting of the mother makes this manifest?

As for the incest, I do agree with you there. What's fascinating is that I always get squeamish reading the forgiving reviews, yet when watching the actual movie, lo and behold, it really was impossible to be offended or put-off while watching, Malle handles it so well.

BUT, as you seem to be suggesting, that in itself may be the problem. Some recent readings (a Godard bio and a history of ethics on the French left following May '68) illuminate, to a certain extent, the context Malle was working in: early 70s France was a hotbed of re-thinking sexual mores, going to the extent of sex with children (with their "consent" - barf) and breaking down familial barriers - the family being seen as an oppressive bourgeois institution, of course. Meanwhile, the often impenetrable text of Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari's anti-psychoanalytic tome, celebrated the advent of "desiring machines" unconstrained by limits and norms.

Sorry if I'm trodding familiar ground her for many of you but this was all news to me, and I think it casts this movie and its approach to a thorny subject in an interesting light, at least for me.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Movie Man, I was about your age when I saw Murmur of the Heart in the cinema with a largely university crowd, and the incest was not an issue.

But 30 years on, after raising a family and the aching devastation of my own mother's passing, I now see the scenario as irresponsible at best and at worst profoundly disturbing.

The racism claim is based on the belief that the mother's act of incest is acceptable only because she is not French. Malle is like some other French artists who project less acceptable behavior onto "the other". Another example is the source story for Rififi, where it is an Italian's weakness for women that sabotages the success of the heist, and his final cowardice as a squealer that is beyond the pale of even criminal behavior.

Joel Bocko said...

That's an interesting perspective which I must say I had not considered. How do you feel Malle alludes to this idea in the film, or did you just think it was implicit? Do you feel there's racism (perhaps prejudice would be a better word since Italians/French are technically the same "race") in other aspects of the movie as well?

After reading a bit about French theory lately (particularly in the 70s) your observation about the "others" (and particularly the fact that in this case it's a transgression being at once celebrated, or at least quietly accepted, and "othered" at the same time) rings something of a bell.

At any rate, Malle's implicit (and many 70s intellectuals' overt) view of "incest shock" being merely a bourgeois, socialized hang-up is patently absurd. Just think if it was a father & daughter instead of mother & son...reaction would be completely (and deservedly) offended.

Did you ever see Sweet Movie, the follow-up to the provocative and interesting W.R. Mysteries of the Organism? There was a scene where a woman is teasing and flirting with a few young boys on a boat, and it comes very close to crossing the line. I don't think I had a visceral revulsion towards it, but rather an intellectual one - again from the observation that if the genders were reversed, I'd be extremely offended. It's an interesting question to mull over.

At any rate, though, I divorce - to a certain, shaky extent - a film's ethics from its aesthetics (though honesty, if not morality, can sometimes be an aesthetic quality). Murmur was an excellent and well-made film, if in retrospect (and the fact that it's only in retrospect is evidence of its skill) a troubling one.

Sam Juliano said...

I was no fan of SWEET MOVIE, but admit that MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM was indeed provocative.

Joel Bocko said...

More or less agreed with you, Sam - I liked W.R. quite a bit (particularly it's bizarre and subversive use of Soviet propaganda films) and saw it at Lincoln Center during the Janus Films retro, which was cool. When Sweet Movie came out on Criterion, I rented it, but found it veering from silly and unfunny to revolting. I never shut off or fast-forward movies I'm seeing for the first time, but after about 10 minutes of people eating, puking, and playing with themselves (and then puking again) I have to admit I hit the FF button. Actually, I'm not sure I made it that far. (Although, it does tie in with the French history books I've been reading & discussing, in terms of Anti-Oedipus. If this is what Deleuze & Guattari meant by "desiring machines," count me out!)

The girl doused in chocolate was kind of cool, though.

Sam Juliano said...

Movie Man, that chocolate covered girl was indeed a hoot, I'll grant you that! That's terrific that you got to see ORGANISM at the Lincoln Center retro--that's indeed the way to see it!

Tony D'Ambra said...

Movie Man you have covered the issues well in your response. For my part I may be perhaps out on a limb, but I can't disassociate morality from aesthetics.

I don't think Malle consciously cast the mother as Italian, rather it was subliminal. I chose the word 'racism' rather than 'prejudice' as what I am alluding to in French culture is a certain blinkered insularity - an innate feeling of cultural superiority. Another example is last year's The Class, where the idea that a disruptive and confused Muslim boy from North Africa will suffer a fate worse than death if he is expelled - his father will send him away from la belle France and
back to Africa. This is not to say that this insularity is so pervasive that there are no exceptions. Films such as Madame Rosa and more recently Monsieur Ibrahim are open to the other.

As for French intellectuals of the 70s, they were all care and no responsibility. What is important is not only the circumstances of an act, but its consequences. We know enough about childhood to realise that an act of incest with a child is manifestly an act with deep and life-long consequences, and to my mind a terrible 'sin' against the child. Taboos against incest and the like are not western bourgeois inventions, but part of what Jung termed the 'collective unconscious'. Malle is culpable to the extent that he portrays the act other than what it is: something deeply selfish and perverted that has profound consequences for the child.

I haven't seen nor do I desire to see Sweet Movie.

ratatouille's archives said...

Bonjour! Alexander,

I must "seek" this film out! to watch, but of course...I think your review is very well written and you point out the main details about this film in the most "subtleness" of way(s).
I must admit that I'am very "happy" to read Tony's opinion too!...because I really do appreciate "opposing" views, about a film,(or films) book,(or books) etc, etc, etc... before I watch a film or read a book for the first time.
Merci! Alexander,
Oops!...Let me rephrase this comment...I really do appreciate "opposing" views, about a film,(or films) book,(or books) etc, etc, etc... before I watch a film or read a book.

Most definitely, Not only for the first-time, but any time!...I decide to watch a film (s) or read a book(s).
Deedee ;-D

Joel Bocko said...

Tony, great response. As indicated, my feelings on morality, ethics, and aesthetics are complicated. They tend to be stronger in the case of documentary (hence our brush-up on Mr. Moore last fall) but in the case of narrative, I tend to think the ethical hang-ups I have are more due to aesthetics. As I indicated in my list of favorite characters, I - as much as the next guy - am fascinated with bad guys and antiheroes, usually finding them more compelling than the good guys. Yet there is a certain code to this amorality - call it "honor among thieves." As I indicated in the comments section, the character of Hannibal Lecter irritates me because I think he's a convenient vessel for the snobbery of his audiences, and because (pardon the pun) he gets to have his cake and eat it too. Call it a preference for amorality over immorality.

However, I think this is due more to an irritation of hypocrisy and indirectly dishonesty than an extrafilmic moral code - in other words, I feel characters like this disrupt the integrity of the movie's universe and that is where my objection stems from. I'm not entirely sure this is the case - I have not examined the matter in great detail - but it seems to be a logical conclusion. Generally I will accept as a work of art even something as blindly reactionary or fascistic as The Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will (theoretically, in the latter case, as I haven't seen it) though in those cases, extrafilmic reality tends to creep in and spoil whatever pleasures I'd gain from the high art. Even then, it tends to be morality/ethics standing next to my aesthetic reaction, rather than totally intermingled with it (though it does color the aesthetic reaction, see my August review of Birth of a Nation on my blog for more on that complex relationship).

Anyway, it's a fascinating subject, worthy of a full-length blog post to be sure though I'm not up to it at this point. Your perceptions of France are intriguing and I would love to know what you thought of the book I just finished, called From Revolution to Ethics: May 1968 and Contemporary Thought, by Julien Bourg. It discusses the very transformation you indicate as needed in the 70s, namely from a sense of care or passion to a sense of responsibility (or, as the author puts it from a "revolutionary" sensibility which subordinated ethics to a sense of class consciousness or anarchistic abandon - it is forbidden to forbid - to a concern with ethics.) For myself, I found the book absorbing in its details, while somewhat muddled in its conclusions - the exact contours of this supposed transmutation never became quite clear to me, the forest getting lost in the trees, but it's intriguing nonetheless. Perhaps worth at least a perusal on your part, if you stumble across it in a bookstore (and as someone who seems to be on the left, but from an extremely ethical standpoint, you might find it interesting).

I have to say you won't be missing terribly much by avoiding Sweet Movie (though W.R. is substantially more interesting, and - while still X-rated in sensibility if not fact - considerably less scatological).

Tony D'Ambra said...

Movie Man, you are certainly making me think :) Trouble is, I doubt that intellectually I am up to the challenge. Anyway here goes.

I think the fascination with the anti-hero is rooted in the idea of freedom. We are not free and to be free we must reject conformity. The anti-hero's embracement of this rejection is a vicarious release. But bourgeois ideology has it that such rejection can only be anti-social, so we rarely if ever see virtuous anti-heroes. In our alienation, the flawed anti-hero is some kind of sublimation. We leave the cinema and manage to face another week of an empty frustrated existence.

As for the failure to live up to 1968, the revolution was co-opted by Madison Ave. Che became the face on a Swatch watch, and the love children went back to suburbia with a mortgage. Protest left the streets and moved into irrelevant cloisters. The debate of the 70s went nowhere as it was of meaning only to those cloistered few, and the 70s films from the likes of Faraldo and Wertmuller, that confronted both the bankruptcy of the bourgeois and the radical left, were buried in art house cinemas.

The recent Italian film, My Brother is an Only Son (2007), deftly explores this idea of responsibility through the lives of two brothers, one a fascist the other a marxist, from the early 60s to the early 70s, and is well worth viewing.

teabag timmy said...


failure said...

Does Barack Obama understand the people he leads? Do his aides?

These may seem cheeky questions to ask of a team that just won the presidency. But there is something in their cool, insouciant, blasé demeanor, in the face of insults to their country, that suggests there yet exists a chasm – between them and us.

Now, the change since the 1960s in the character of the nation has been great. The moral and social sappers spawned by that decade have done their work well. But Middle America yet remains a blood-and-soil, family-and-faith, God-and-country kind of nation.

We are not Europe – yet.

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Sam Juliano said...

Although I fear this blog is no more,(and I quite understand that it is hardly a priority and well it should not be) I want to extend Best Wishes to Alexander, and hope all is well. You are greatly missed.

Daniel said...

Seriously, what Sam said.

Hope you're still enjoying the movies, Alexander, even if you no longer have the time/insane amount of energy to write about them so well. said...

Your superbly constructed essays and the illuminating commentary about them are sorely missed.

The Film Doctor said...

I agree with Sam, Daniel, and the Cinemaguy. Excellent work, Alexander.

jennybee said...

Come back, Alexander. We miss you. Let us know you're ok.

stooge said...

I have it on good authority Mr. Alexander Coleman will be returning to Coleman's Corner in Cinema within the next 9 hours.

Anonymous said...

and i have it on good authority that you are an idiot!
moe and larry!

Sam juliano said...

There has been an official "sighting" at another blog!

I believe the prodigal son will be returning tonight!

Coleman's Corner in Cinema... said...

Thank you for your concern, everyone. I address the situation here.

I truly appreciate everyone's kind words. And I am thrilled that this thread became so lively and fascinating while I was away! Kudos to everyone who posted here.

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