Director Louis Malle, who died of lymphoma Nov. 23 in Beverly Hills at the age of 63, was often described as a member of the French new-wave movement of the ’60s. But while he was a peer of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, Malle — the scion of a wealthy family and the product of a Jesuit education — didn’t share their polemical fervor or desire to revolutionize cinema. Nevertheless, over the course of a 40-year career that began with his codirecting The Silent World, the Oscar-winning 1956 undersea documentary, Malle created films of rare wit, intelligence, and feeling. As the director put it in his 1992 book Malle on Malle, ”The longer I live, the less I trust ideas, the more I trust emotions.”
While he never courted controversy, Malle’s career was dotted with it—from the flak he caught for the eroticism of 1958’s The Lovers to his tussle with the MPAA over his kinky 1992 drama Damage. Malle found a curious kind of celebrity in the U.S. when he married Candice Bergen in 1980. The following year saw the release of what may be his most talked-about film, My Dinner With Andre, a two-man gabfest that Malle managed to enliven with canny camera work and editing.
Here are five of Malle’s best films, all demonstrating particular facets of his inquisitive artistic personality.
Zazie Dans Le Metro (1960, New Yorker, unrated) Zazie (Catherine Demongeot), a sassy cross between Pippi Longstocking and Lolita, navigates a series of Parisian misadventures in one of Malle’s most whimsical and experimental Þlms. A-
The Fire Within (1963, New Yorker, unrated) Fans of Leaving Las Vegas will appreciate this bleak and meticulously observed portrait of an alcoholic, disillusioned writer (Maurice Ronet) who takes stock of his life before leaving it. A
Murmur of the Heart (1971, Orion, R) A sensitive teen (Benoit Ferreux) afflicted with the titular ailment forms a close bond with his mother (Lea Massari). Not the crass incest-can-be-fun trifle for which many originally mistook it, the film treats its taboo subject with a lightness that reflected Malle’s refusal to pass judgment on his characters. A-
Atlantic City (1980, Paramount, R) Malle (Oscar nominated) and scripter John Guare craft a beautiful concerto for losers. From Susan Sarandon’s ambitious would-be blackjack dealer to Robert Joy’s weaselly drug peddler to Burt Lancaster’s faded gangster, each performance is a little masterpiece. A
May Fools (1990, Orion, R) Rather than re-create the Paris riots of 1968, Malle wryly and disquietingly examines them from the perspective of a bourgeois clan experiencing its own personal upheaval: the death of its matriarch. B+