Thursday, October 10, 2013

FI: Murmur of the Heart

Murmur of the Heart / Le souffle au cœur
France/Italy/W. Germany, 1971
Written and directed by Louis Malle

Though Louis Malle's career took him through many phases and across several genres, even spanning the divide between fiction and documentary, his sensitivity towards youth was one of his most enduring and endearing traits. He pushes Benoît Ferreux, the lead in the bourgeois coming-of-age tale Murmur of the Heart, to heights of insouciance that far eclipse the rambunctious youths depicted in most of his other work, but never loses sight of his childish nature. Ferreux's Laurent is a boy without a country, so to speak. He attends a religious school but doesn't believe in God. He's smarter than either of the troublemaking older brothers (Fabien Ferreux, Marc Winocour) who give him a hard time, but still idealizes their prankish, partying ways and copies their derisive treatment of the servants who have fawned over him for his entire life. He is similarly babied and favored by his attractive, youthful Italian mother (Lea Massari), for which he alternately disdains and lusts after her, but ignored (or worse) by his aloof gynecologist father (Daniel Gélin). He is, in short, a typical conflicted teenage boy, with all of the attendant inappropriate desires and psychological scars that come with that territory, and Malle's script seems to have a near-perfect grasp of when to shift Laurent from one register to another to avoid wearying the audience. Even when they try our patience, his actions never beggar belief.

Laurent's family lives in 1950's Dijon during the waning days of the conflict in French Indochina, an interesting period for Malle to revisit with foreknowledge of the oncoming counter-cultural turmoil of 1960s France. Malle seems to be setting up the death of the paternalistic French empire as an analogue for Laurent's coming of age and his family's willingness to ignore their own fusty patriarch, but such a reading doesn't lend enough credence to the film's jazzy, light tone. The film is a bit episodic, especially its first half, though it settles down after an illness—a fever that results in the titular heart murmur—separates Laurent and his mother from the rest of the characters by moving them to a sanitarium. Earlier episodes are hit-or-miss, often driven largely by how much you can tolerate Laurent's brothers. One well-executed sequence, however, shows Laurent confessing his sins to an ever-so-slightly creepy priest played deftly by Michael Lonsdale (Moonraker's Hugo Drax), where Malle holds us in uncomfortable close-ups that highlight the priest's mild inappropriateness.

Aside from anything else, I would say that the film is one about longing and loneliness, about not understanding our desires or those of others. As Laurent, Ferreux often looks lost or expressionless, and I don't think it's because he's a bad performer. Malle sees something in his gangling, adolescent body and his enigmatic features: the face of a boy who wants something and doesn't know what it is. In that way, he's like his unfulfilled mother, his philandering brothers, his closed-off father, and even his touchy priest. They're all navigating their days with a heart whose guidance they can't understand, with all the strain and tension that incomprehension suggests. As such, thanks to Malle's awareness and sensitivity, many of Murmur of the Heart's best scenes come when that tension breaks.

As a Criterion Collection title, Murmur of the Heart is available to stream here on HuluPlus.

No comments:

Post a Comment