Sunday 4 November 2007

Murmur of the Heart (1971) Louis Malle

We're in Dijon in the Spring of 1954 to follow young Laurent Chevalier, played by a brand new name to the screen, Benoît Ferreux. Louis Malle often preferred to work with young untrained actors as he felt he got more realistic performances out of them. Laurent is the youngest of the three Chevalier children, but the other two happily steal from their mother and pee in her sink. He's a little thief himself too, a jazz fan who pinches new Charlie Parker records from the store, but at least hes got promise unlike his two brothers. His father refers to them as two idiots and a little genius, not entirely referring to ther intellectual capabilities. At least Laurent knows how to behave, even if he often doesn't.

There's a lot here about youth, but it flows with reality much better than just basic rebellion. Sure, all these kids seem to want to drink out of the bottle and smoke and talk back at adults, just like any others, and come up with bizarre stunts like putting a bra on the statue of St Therese. However, there's depth well beyond that. Laurent is an altar boy at his Catholic school who doesn't believe, and his fellow altar boy wants to see a real Black Mass.

The story as a whole is about sex though, and the coming of age that makes it such an issue. Like any 15 year old boy, Laurent has sex on his mind, but he has the benefit of two elder brothers with money and influence who are able to initiate him into it. He gets taught how to kiss by a guest at a party his brothers through while their parents are out of town, then they take him to the closest thing in town to a whorehouse while they're drunk and in bed.

It certainly can't hurt that his mother Clara, played by Lea Massari (who I've yet to see in L'Avventura), is very hot indeed, and she's on his mind because he's her favourite and he discovers that she's having an affair, even though her husband looks like a French version of Cary Grant (Maria Schneider's father, Daniel Gélin). Eventually we discover that Laurent has a heart murmur so has to start spending much of his time in bed or visiting a health retreat, and that of course brings new adventures, especialy when it comes to Bastille Day.

When watching the scene with the prostitute I couldn't help but wonder about how great a time young Benoît Ferreux must have been having, given that he was 16, acting for the first time and suddenly finding himself in bed with a good looking topless young lady. However, once he gets to the health spa he finds himself stripped naked and hosed down, making me wonder more about how Traci Lords got herself in no end of trouble for appearing in porn at 16 but Louis Malle was able to strip a sixteen year old boy naked on film and not get into any trouble at all. I realise that we're talking entirely different levels of acting here, but I could still see the outcry were this film to have been made in America. Actually, if you read through the message boards at IMDb for Pretty Baby, a film Louis Malle made seven years later in the States with some apparent similarities to this one, you'll see how that outcry would have appeared.

The story is fascinating, very European in outlook but magnetic even though it's a coming of age story so there's no definable start or end to the plot. I often have trouble with stories like this because of the inevitable lack of focus but when they're done right they're magnetic like this one. Even when something happens that doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything, that magnetism kicks in and I have to keep watching anyway because somehow I know it's going to mean something later in the grand scheme of things. I haven't yet learned how to tell the difference between those that work and those that don't yet, except for that seemingly undefinable magnetism. This one has it.

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