Le souffle au cœur, dir. Louis Malle, 1971
I came across this film as part of a retrospective of the French New Wave - a movement this particular example seems to sit slightly outside, as a kind of atypical oddity. If the nouvelle vague, as I understand it, sought to capture the grim realism of French post-war sensibility with films like À bout de souffle by its most erstwhile exponent, Jean-Luc Goddard, or Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour, then by comparison Le souffle au cœur (Murmur of the Heart) is more akin to a proto-Hollywood fantasy of nostalgia and whimsy. Malle's style is that of the warm glow, the soft-touch, the lyrical sweep, with a bias towards narrative flow, rounded character and familiar sentiment. Its narrative and thematic interests are closer to François Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups, but where Truffaut exalts that sharp adolescent disjuncture with social convention by creating a portrait of neglect, poverty, grimness and unfeeling state cruelty through its bold visual style and stunning jump cuts in order to, as Andrew Sarris has said, "existentially represent the meaningless of the time interval between moral decisions," Malle has chosen to depict an even more startling moral crisis by allowing it to creep up on the viewer through a series of pastel-tinted vignettes. The result is both astounding and similarly disaffecting: you witness the horror unfold but as if it were happening with the downy golden drip of the late summer sun shining over it. Rarely has a film left me feeling so ambiguous about what I know for certain to be a moral outrage and yet somehow I still find myself seeming partly sympathetic towards it. I admit, this both unnerves and intrigues me deeply.
The film is framed from the perspective of 14-year old Laurent Chevalier (the freakishly brilliant Benoît Ferreux - never really heard of since his debut in this film - somehow managing to capture all the constraints and carelessness and complications of adolescence to perfection) who is living the charmed life of a spoilt bourgeois kid in 1950's Dijon. Son to a wealthy, but distant and stern gynecologist (Daniel Gélin) and a young, adoring and playful Italian mother (the captivatingly beautiful Lea Massari), Laurent is precocious and intelligent: he loves jazz (especially Charlie Parker whose latest record he brazenly steals from the record store under the nose of its proprietor despite being well able to pay for it), literature (Sartre's le mythe de Sisyphe has a particular allure because, apparently, it was fashionable for all wealthy French male adolescents to contemplate suicide at some point or another - it seemed to be an expected rite of passage) and politics (he is opposed to France's entanglement in the First Indochina War, an event which looms offstage throughout the film as a counter to its bourgeois pretensions, and for which he badgers Dijon residents into donating all their spare change to the cause only to go and spend the takings on cigarettes: thus a triumph of teenage indifference to real world geopolitical concerns).
Laurent and his two deviant, prank-obsessed older brothers Thomas (Fabian Ferreux - real-life older brother of Benoît) and Marc (Marc Winocourt) live in a glorious upper-middle class suburban home where they are waited on by their long-suffering Italian matron-maid Augusta (Ave Ninchi) who both abhors their infantile-puerile teenage antics while at the same time finding their boyishness sentimentally charming - it is exactly this kind of character complexity, even in the minor parts, which gives this film its considerable emotional heft, not to mention its winning charm and naturalness. Their home is stuffed with all manner of expensive French painting and furniture which, of course, is always taken for granted by the boys - they spill wine carelessly and have food fights and loot expensive rugs from their attic to sell in order to finance their penchant for expensive whores - although there are hints that their mother married into the family from more modest aristocratic beginnings: she arrived in France with 'Gusta' (Augusta) penniless but beautiful after living her youth "wild in a house designed by Leonardo da Vinci." This kind of detail feeds perfectly into creating a picture of exactly the kind of winsome free-spirited woman Clara Chevalier is, a fact we reflect on with some alarm later when events unfold in surprising and delicately shocking ways.
Indeed, the script for Le souffle au cœur is exquisitely realised on so many levels: its several moral ambiguities and its refusal to sensationalise what could in other hands become laboured and hysterical, is by far its most winning aspect. It also has a lightness which paradoxically works on several very complex layers of allegory and profundity: the fact that you never realise this until you are forced to reconsider it in light of its shocking climax is further testament to its brilliance. For a film cast in the aesthetic model of cinema of the 1970's there is also a very well tempered pacing to the dialogue: it is never forced or rushed, never played for intensity where Malle knows neutrality and silence far better capture the realism of the characters deployed.
Being set in the milieu of the bourgeois it is also a stunning satire on French Catholicism. Father Henri (Michael Lonsdale) is your quintessential Catholic pervert at the strict Catholic school Laurent attends but Laurent is aware of where his desires lie and is more amused by outsmarting him and quietly ridiculing him than he is worried about becoming an object of the man's suppressed desires. Their home life is predicated on a strict Catholic code of vigilance, decorum and reverence and yet there is an energy of louche mischief and subversiveness which constantly sets out to challenge it in subtle ways. The older boys run rings around their youthful-natured mother, often bullying her into handing over cash for their bar bill, while she has a far more affecting and connective relationship with Laurent who she openly says is her true soul-mate. When he realises that she is escaping the clutches of her humourless husband and having an affair on the side, Laurent does not so much feel she is betraying his father but betraying his own idolisation of her, thus triggering off a simmering emotional firestorm which festers within him for almost the rest of the film.
There is complex psycho-sexual framing at play here. Laurent is introduced to sex by his brothers who whisk him off to their local brothel after knicking the keys to their dad's car one night. Here a sweet-natured prostitute Freda (Gila von Weitershausen) is tasked with taking him under her wing and gently deflowering him: she apparently specialises in "taking care of the virgins". Oh, so French. In the middle of the act, his brothers burst in and haul him off the bed, triggering off an understandable wave of fury and frustration in the boy; an anxiety which then builds and builds as the darkening third act of the film unfolds. He packs his bags in protest and departs for a boy scouts camp where around the camp fire one night he leads his scout group in a recital of Goethe's Erlkönig and where there is a clear moment of homoerotic desire between himself, as the father figure who shields his son, played by a school friend, from the predations of the sinister Elf King. We earlier see the school friend passing what is assumed to be love notes to Laurent during Mass: after school they hang out and smoke cigarettes and nothing, of course, happens in the taut enclosure of the city. But the camp provides an opportunity for a potential long-wished-for dalliance, except that for Laurent it is again interrupted: that night in their tent, just as the boy asks to sleep next to him and may, we feel, about to initiate those awkward first steps towards intimacy, Laurent comes down with a terrible fever. Again, there is rich ambiguity in the writing, but we have the feeling that sexual exploration and gratification is only further delayed for the youth, whose frustrated burgeoning sexuality quickly becomes the film's central conflict in need of dramatic resolution.
The illness is scarlet fever which leaves him with a semi-dangerous "heart murmur" -a pun which is played on well. Bed rest is ordered followed by a long and luxurious period of recuperation at an expensive country sanatorium: the type where they make you swallow dodgy mineral infused concoctions and then hose you down with ice cold sprays. His mother accompanies him, but due to a mix-up they have to share a small hotel suite and sleep in close proximity - he in a makeshift bed installed in a room only divided by a narrow partition. Alone and free from his overbearing father and meddlesome brothers, further emotional closeness develops between mother and son which occasionally slides into the discomforting realm of the physical: he glimpses her naked in the bath singing Italian love songs; likewise, she kneels behind him and washes his hair, or clips his toenails. Then she is pursued by a determined young man at the hotel which Laurent tries to ward off jealously and then her lover arrives for what she presumes are discreet liaisons, except that of course Laurent can overhear it all and is driven to despair. It triggers off a crisis which causes him to act out with a nasty petulance around the hotel when she disappears for two days: he tries to court and seduce an attractive girl called Hélène but discovers she is a prude. He calls her a lesbian in front of her family and accuses her of being a tease. After Bastille Day celebrations, with his mother returned to him, they drink too much. Back in the hotel room ... well, the audaciousness of what has all this time been foreshadowed tenderly and quietly and mutually comes to pass.
Yes, all so very French and very 1970's.
Quite what Malle intends his audience to do with this revelation is a mystery. From here he builds no moral lesson, he makes no judgments, he offers no real denouement, he inserts no consequences, emotional or physical. The film ends with Laurent rapidly bedding another girl at the hotel called Daphne as if to suggest that his just-occurred incestuous encounter has given him the courage to pursue his desires as opposed to being the catastrophic psycho-paralysis one may anticipate in a classic Freudian context. Then his father and brothers arrive and the whole family is reunited, laughing and fooling about as if nothing has happened. The only thing she offers him in the aftermath is the rather insipid post-coital reflection that the act will not be repeated, and they should "both look on it with tenderness rather than remorse." In a way, she insinuates that it was just a once-off occurrence: a murmur of the heart. It's an argument Laurent seems, then at least, to accept but of course what the film does not go on to project is what lingering effect and psychological damage this event will have in the months and years to come. By leaving the matter so uncontested, the film plays a cruel trick on us: the volta farce apparently comes so unexpectedly, like such a bolt out of the blue, that it forces you to almost immediately begin to re-trace the seemingly benign and light-hearted steps which preceded it.
In many ways, the script has sign-posted the possibility of this turn of events from the very beginning: there is a quasi-incestuous undercurrent which at first masquerades as expected boyish libidinousness - an early scene, for example, where the brothers all sit around comparing penis size, after which Laurent generically remarks "splendide" but the comment is actually aimed at Marc who it turns out is dressed in his mother's clothing and has been taunting Laurent in the character of their mother and then for what he claims is the younger boy's lack of comparative virility. Then there are scenes in which Laurent's open resentment of his father and his confessed desire to see him removed from the scene echoes the strains of a clear Oedipal complex. His first encounter with the prostitute Freda is preceded by her rather infantilising maternal talk to him: she then urges him to come and wash in a way any mother would before her kid gets innocently into bed at night.
We need to ask whether this accumulation of the fetishisation of the "mother as sex-object" has in any way contributed to the ideation of how Laurent views his mother and whether the same lax bourgeois mentality which permits and promotes early entry into adulthood by way of liberalising access to alcohol, cigarettes and sex, may later lead to a catastrophic compromise in moral judgement calls within the familial environment. There is also a telling interplay between staunch Catholicism (albeit instructed by a compromised priest) and the bourgeois sensibility: during an uncomfortable confession, Father Henri instructs Laurent to say a considerable number of "Hail Mary's" for committing the various sins which he has prized the boy to own up to - predominantly thoughts of sex and acts of masturbation - while at the same time the insinuation is to consider the Virgin Mary as a flagrant mother figure. It's no surprise, then, that the poor boy's long-held object of desire has become so thoroughly confused and perverted in his mind. In the end, Malle might be arguing that the basis of all moral failing ultimately and ironically begins with the dangers of dogmatic faith itself.
Malle could, of course, have played it safe and left the encounter unconsummated. The film might arguably have been rendered more subtle because of the suggestion of mother-son desire rather than the act of it, but I wonder if the end result would force one to be just as satisfactorily reflective and unsettled? The very best films must do both.
Dangerous attachments? Lea Massari and Benoît Ferreux in Le souffle au cœur.