You call it incest. Appellate Judge Dan Mancini calls it an epiphany.
Our review of 3 Films By Louis Malle: Criterion Collection, published March 28th, 2006, is also available.
"I'll remember it without remorse, tenderly. Promise you'll do the same."—Clara Chevalier
Though Louis Malle had been directed feature films for 13 years (15 if you count his co-director credit on Jacques Cousteau's The Silent World) when he made Murmur of the Heart (Le Souffle au coeur), it still feels like a debut feature. In a sense, it is. Malle's career predates the New Wave. His earliest works are tidy and technically precise. All of that changed when he packed off to India to make a free-form film whose structure and content would be a mystery until he actually got down to the work of shooting it. He came away from this exotic and daring experiment with the feature Calcutta (1969), and a television series called Phantom India (broadcast the same year). More than that, though, he came away with a reinvigorated approach to making films.
Murmur of the Heart inaugurated a new phase in Malle's career. The picture is a bildungsroman, but that's not the only thing that makes it feel like a shockingly potent debut—as a matter of fact, it's not even the primary thing. Murmur overflows with an exuberant love of craft and subject-matter typically found in the work of a young artist flexing his muscles. It has the same precise attention to detail and precocious energy one sees in Truffaut's The 400 Blows or Godard's Breathless or Welles's Citizen Kane.
Facts of the Case
Murmur of the Heart opens in Dijon in the spring of 1954. Fourteen-year-old Laurent Chevalier (Benoit Ferreux, Victory) lives in relative affluence with his gynecologist father, Italian mother Clara (Lea Massari, Christ Stopped at Eboli), and rambunctious older brothers, Marc and Thomas. Laurent is a gangly mama's boy obsessed with the energetic new jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. Awakening sexually, he rebels against the strictures of the Catholic school he attends, and finds a wry humor in the tentative advances of one of the priests (Michael Lonsdale, Stolen Kisses). He secretly reads racy books and masturbates. His brothers arrange for his true sexual initiation at a local brothel, but sabotage their carnal gift before the act is fully consummated.
More than any of this sexual exploration, though, it is Laurent's discovery that his mother is having an affair that begins to draw his childhood to a close. When he is diagnosed with a heart murmur, he and mommy retreat to a countryside spa. Because of a booking mix-up, the duo must share a room. In this cloistered environment, Laurent begins to comes to grips with his mother's dalliances. And one night, after hearty Bastille Day revelry, the duo find an odd comfort in each other's arms and Laurent takes his final step into manhood.
A plot description of Murmur of the Heart can't possibly do the film justice. Like many coming of age films, it is a series of vignettes that are unrelated except for the way they propel the protagonist toward epiphany. Tone and texture are more important than structure (that's the way it appears on the surface, at least). And Malle's film is full of great texture from dinner table discussions of France's problems in Indochina, to references to The Barefoot Contessa and Goethe's The Erlking, to a soundtrack that bristles with the be-bop of Parker and Gillespie, and swings with Sidney Bechet's New Orleans-flavored clarinet. Exuberant, bawdy humor abounds, too. In one scene the Chevaliers' Italian maid Augusta (Ave Ninchi, To Live in Peace) catches the boys measuring their penises. The result is a riotous free-for-all. In another, Thomas harangues Laurent as he tries to masturbate. In yet another, anarchy invades dinner as Marc and Thomas play "spinach tennis."
On first blush, these vignettes appear disconnected from one another except in the way they reveal the details of Laurent's day-to-day life. But Malle is slyly compelling us toward the picture's eyebrow-raising finale. We see early on that Clara Chevalier behaves more like an older sibling to her boys than a mother—especially Laurent, whom she dotes over and affectionately refers to as Renzino. In one scene, Marc and Thomas steal money from her purse. Clara's anger is a show, dissolving into the ether as she playfully chases the scamps about the apartment. Papa Chevalier is an adult (albeit a rather clueless one), but Mama's a child, just as subject to her whims and emotions as the household's three adolescents. Her affair—which is revealed to us at the same moment it is to Laurent, looking out a window down to the street outside as she climbs happily into a car with a man we've never seen before—is disappointing in that it's an emotional blow to Laurent, but it isn't surprising. This woman is too immature to be cognizant of duty or the feelings of others.
The eyebrow-raising finale involves an act of incest. A brief and delicately-handled sexual union between Laurent and Clara during their stay at the cloistered netherworld of the spa. In his essay found in the insert booklet for this DVD release, critic Michael Stragow argues that the act flows so naturally from the characters that it isn't disturbing in the least. I think he's half right. The union is a logical terminal point for the paths each character has traveled over the course of the film's two hours. It's also a perfect poetic crux on which childhood ends and adulthood begins for Laurent. It remains, however, as uncomfortable as a moment of mother-son incest is apt to be, regardless of how we intellectualize it. And that's as it should be, as Malle intended.
"When we are young, the Oedipus complex thing is like a joke," Malle told film critic Roger Ebert in an interview conducted in 1972. "It takes years to discover that it is real, that there is a dream ideal, an initiating mother, in our subconscious. The movie is about that sort of childlike dream." The quote explains why the scene is absent prurience or tawdry thrills. The spa is a kind of dream world, a limbo space between Laurent's childhood world and the world of adults on whose threshold he stands. Malle's construction of this symbol is so precise that it feels naturalistic, yet succeeds in diffusing the scandal of the incest. Our natural cringing at the idea of sexual contact between parent and child is diverted by Malle into a visceral identification with Laurent's physical, emotional, intellectual, and sexual epiphany. We feel as though the boy's childhood, his innocence, dies in the contact with Clara. The union between them is no union at all, but a final separation. It isn't grotesque, nor is it sexy; it's melancholy, yet somehow inevitable. The symbolic resonance of the scene saps much of the ick-factor found in a literal reading. And we're left with a very real sense of the finality with which Laurent has crossed the threshold into adulthood. From Zazie dans le Métro to Lacombe, Lucien to Au Revoir les Enfants to Pretty Baby, Malle's oeuvre demonstrates his small obsession with the exquisite moment in which a person becomes an adult. The incest in Murmur of the Heart is such a potent and evocative symbol of that cocktail of pleasure and pain, that melding of sadness and joy, that it is perhaps his definitive statement on the subject.
Murmur of the Heart's 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is gorgeous even by Criterion's standards. According to the liner notes, the high-definition transfer—supervised by cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich (Missing)—was sourced from the 35mm interpositive and internegative, and digitally restored. It's not an exaggeration to say the resulting image is pristine. Every single frame is smooth and detailed. Colors are always accurate. Digital artifacts are absent even in filtered shots with gauzy, diffused light. The fact that the film is 35 years old only makes the work Criterion has done that much more impressive.
The single-channel reproduction of the film's original French mono soundtrack has undergone a complete restoration also. The result is a faithful representation of a limited source. Distractions are absent, leaving clear dialogue and convincing ambience.
Criterion delivers Murmur of the Heart both as this single-disc release, and as the first disc in their 3 Films by Louis Malle boxed set. This stand-alone disc is part of their budget line, and contains a limited number of supplements. The disc itself offers only a theatrical trailer in addition to the feature. An insert booklet has the aforementioned essay by Michael Stragow, as well as detailed information about the restoration and transfer of the film to DVD.
Murmur of the Heart is as entertaining a coming of age picture as it is challenging. It's also one of Louis Malle's finest efforts.
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Scales of Justice
• Original Theatrical Trailer
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