by Martin Heavisides
Though there really hasn’t been a time since the release of Ascenseur pour l’echafaud when he hasn’t been esteemed, I’ve always had the nagging feeling that Louis Malle has gotten less than his due as a filmmaker. (It goes without saying there are first-rate directors of whom this is much more noticeably true, such as Vera Chytilova and Lars Von Trier, but they tend to be provocateurs—Lars particularly–whose work has a polarizing effect on audiences. With two exceptions, that’s never been Malle’s style—he’s not at all unwilling to challenge and shock viewers, but seems to prefer sliding the needle in gently so the impact’s only gradually absorbed by the system.
The other problem for Vera Chytilova is that she’s a woman–which remains a pretty good way, if you’re not a shallow artist or simple propagandist, to have your vision persistently discounted. Couldn’t she have arranged this matter better at conception or in the womb? Whether or not a man could have made Daisies, Panel Story or The Apple Game, if a man had they’d be judged very differently.)
The two exceptions in Malle to the above rule are Zazie dan le Metro, which is as stylistically innovative as Daisies or Black Moon, but nowhere near as pinpoint-sharp and integrated in its vision; and Black Moon, surely the least popular of Malle’s major films, and my personal favourite–but then I’ve always been a sucker for movies that read like a collaboration between Lewis Carroll and Hieronymus Bosch.
Perhaps the trouble is how difficult it is to slot Louis Malle. Make the same film too often and with too little internal variation and your name’s likely to be Woody Allen on the festival circuit; but even above average critics and scholars may have a bias towards directors whose films are different but not too different one from the next. There’s a continuity of tone and style through the whole body of Louis Malle’s work, but it takes patient and subtle divagation to discover; I’m not about to pretend I could sum it up in a phrase.
A fair number of Malle’s films can be paired in terms of style, theme, visual ambiance; Murmur of the Heart and Milou in May; Lacombe, Lucien and Au revoir des enfants; My Dinner With Andre and Vanya on Forty Second Street; but it’s hard to find a triplet and a fair number remain stubbornly singular. The closest match to Ascenseur pour l’eschafaud is Atlantic City, but they differ rather profoundly in style and narrative strategy. Apart from Viva Maria! which I haven’t seen, the only period films he’s made are The Thief of Paris and Pretty Baby. These difffer profoundly, not only in tone and style but in comparative merit; The Thief of Paris is a great film.
Phantom India and Calcutta perhaps make a pair, but strictly speaking they’re a single project that, for logistical reasons, was split into two films (or into eight if you count the seven episodes of Phantom India as individual films, which is not implausible). I saw Calcutta twice back in the glory days of the reps in Toronto, when every night of the week pretty much you could see a masterpiece somewhere, and some nights you had to choose between several. I’ve never seen another documentary like it. Koyanaasqatsi I suppose employs a similar strategy, but there’s no insistent musical soundtrack to give forward impetus to Calcutta’s slow accumulation of images and life impressions. Only Malle’s seamless editing directs and guides the viewer in any way. Whoa! what a film.
I saw most but not all of Phantom India at Harbourfront. Much chattier, but the avuncular narrative voice-over Malle supplies is unusually open-ended, voicing puzzlement often, looping back on itself with critical reflection, asking far more questions than it answers.
These are not easy films to manage to see, which may be just as well for those who prefer just the movies with actual (fictional) storylines thank you very much. They’re crucial however to anyone who wants to understand Malle’s career, not just enjoy the individual movies that make it up; he’s said more than once that Phantom India and Calcutta changed the way he approached film: made him adopt a style more freeform and open to accidental inspiration, less plot-bound and over-determined. This seems evident enough in Murmur of the Heart, perhaps a little less so in Lacombe, Lucien. Black Moon? listen, without the voyage of discovery and self-discovery that produced Phantom India and Calcutta, Malle most likely would never even have dreamed of making Black Moon–so those who wish he hadn’t know exactly which subcontinent to blame.
Maybe this is the reason–assuming I’m not just imagining it–for the lacuna in Louis Malle’s reputation. If there were general agreement that Michelangelo was a magnificent artist–all but that damn Sistine Chapel–overblown; incoherent; no system to it at all, what was he thinking?–there might be conspicuously less enthusiasm for his body of work altogether, since the Sistine Chapel is a touchstone by which his achievement elsewhere can be measured. Black Moon may be that crucial in the oeuvre of Louis Malle, and it may be that people who haven’t wrestled with that film (or even had the opportunity to wrestle with Phantom India and Calcutta) miss crucial aspects of all the others, not because of direct parallels necessarily, but because of indirect and subliminal currents of association flowing from those films to all the rest.
What is it with Martin Heavisides and film? Sure, sure, a regular website on the history of cinema. Even an unproduceable screenplay (With a Bullet–“Fargo meets the song stylings ofLeonard Cohen.”)—who doesn’t have one of those? But a whole fantasy film career presented as a piece of CNNF (at Sein und Werden and as a chapter in Undermind)? Isn’t this getting a little excessive already. That said, he seems to have Louis Malle cased.