SPECIAL FEATURE: DVD Review: Murmur Of The Heart

Film: Murmur Of The Heart
Running time: 118 mins
Director: Louis Malle
Starring: Lea Massari, Benoît Ferreux, Daniel Gélin, Michael Lonsdale, Ave Ninchi
Genre: Drama
Country: France/Italy/West Germany

Region 1 release.

Louis Malle emerged in the late 1950s New Wave of French cinema, but while his films display many of the defining characteristics of that movement, such as prominent jazz music and a sense of moral ambiguity, there is a degree of classicism and restraint in Malle’s oeuvre which helps define his films against those of his contemporaries. His work is characterised by an understated charm, which is never more evident than in his eighth feature Le souffle au couer (Murmur Of The Heart, 1971), based on his own childhood, and described by the director as “my first film.”

The story, a coming-of-age comedy set in Dijon, France in the early 1950s, comprises a sequence of episodes drawn from the lives of a bourgeois provincial French family, seen through the eyes of the teenaged Laurent Chevalier (Benoît Ferreux), the youngest son of a forbidding, patriarchal gynaecologist (Daniel Gélin) and his beautiful, young Italian wife (Lea Massari).

Initially, in true French style, nothing much happens: Malle sees no need for grand narrative. We see Laurent at home with his family, helping the priest with mass, collecting money for the Red Cross; we see his formative experiences as he attends the Catholic all-boys school; joins in with his brothers’ good-natured ribaldry; and experiences his first kiss with a buxom older girlfriend of one of his siblings during a clandestine wine party, held while his parents are away in Paris.

On returning from Paris, Laurent’s parents are in high spirits, his father displaying a lighter, even amorous sensibility. However, Laurent is already aware that his mother is having an affair; a fact that angers him, but which does not alter his natural affection and sympathy for her. After an episode at a brothel during which his brothers pay for him to lose his virginity to a prostitute, Laurent is diagnosed with the eponymous heart murmur and is taken to a sanatorium to recover, accompanied by his doting mother. As they become closer, their relationship becomes more intimate, and the audience is led gradually towards the controversial and defining moment in the film…

The audience is quickly and cleverly apprised of family relationships during a number of contrasting scenes: those involving Laurent, his mother, the maid, Augusta, and his two elder brothers, which are marked by a sense of chaotic ebullience and matricentric sensuality; and those dominated by the reproachful figure of Laurent’s father, which are generally defined by a feeling of sternness and oppression.

The filial dynamic, which sets the tone of the piece, is skilfully essayed by Malle during a sequence in which Laurent enters the family home to hear his father loudly and aggressively berating a medical secretary for her failings. Ascending the stairs, he encounters the long-suffering maid, Augusta, who affectionately fusses, before entering a bedroom where his mother, in her underwear, absent-mindedly scolds Thomas, one of Laurent’s preternaturally dandyish brothers, about his unpromising exam prospects. Her attention briefly turns to Laurent (“My Renzino”), whom she babies, before she playfully admonishes the third brother, Marc, who is busy urinating in the bathroom sink.

There is a refreshing irreverence about the film: in it, Malle combines morality, humour and sex, setting these themes against a background of art and politics to create the atmosphere of understated yet slightly heightened reality in which the story of Laurent’s sexual awakening unfolds.

Conversations about Jelly Roll Morton, Corneille and Charlie Parker, sit alongside Camus, heresy and the black mass, Tintin, Crevel, and the question of suicide. There is a boisterous and precocious exuberance about the characters’ actions and conversation which is suggestive of worldliness crossed with innocence - a theme which is echoed throughout the piece.

The film is genuinely funny and the fluid, witty naturalism of the dialogue, especially between Laurent, his brothers and their mother, Clara (mesmerizingly played by the Italian actress Lea Massari), is an important comic component. This sense of humour and playfulness allows Malle to present serious issues in a refreshing and original manner.

The moral tone is established early on by a street scene, accompanied by a vibrant jazz score, during which Laurent and a friend collect money for the Red Cross, ostensibly to help the wounded in Indo-China. The activity is actually used as a diversionary tactic in a ruse to steal a Charlie Parker record from a reluctant but benevolent shopkeeper. A sense of ambivalence is formed by the juxtaposition of a comedic, almost slapstick sensibility, with an attendant awareness of the consequences and implications of the characters’ actions. To a certain extent, this sense defines the film, but is never overstated. In fact, one of the delights of Malle’s direction is the lightness of touch he displays when dealing with moral issues. He is content to show the actions of his characters without being tempted to judge. For him, the act of showing is sufficient.

The most famous scene in the film deals with incest and the relationship between Laurent and his mother. The director’s skill in presenting such a controversial issue in an original and understated manner is one of the great achievements of the film. Malle dares to present an act which would usually be treated as an unspeakable sin as one of great love and tenderness - an act of affirmation and joy, which propels Laurent towards personal and sexual liberation. The morning after the event, when Laurent’s father and brothers appear unexpectedly in the room at the sanatorium, the audience draws breath in expectation of a denouement characterised by admonition and reprisal. Instead, in a scene that defines the film, laughter breaks out and spreads infectiously among the family, who are delighted by the sight of Laurent, half clothed, caught red-handed, returning from the triumphant scene of his sexual awakening.

Malle felt that Murmur Of The Heart was his “first happy, optimistic film,” and it is certainly one of his most enjoyable features. The film is a genuinely funny comedy, combining, in a peculiarly Gallic way, high culture, bawdy comedy and moral insight. The director’s lightness of touch when dealing with weighty issues allows for a refreshingly non-judgemental, and, therefore, an unusual presentation of innocence, guilt and morality. 

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