Le Souffle au Coeur
LE SOUFFLE AU COEUR
(Murmur of the Heart)
Director: Louis Malle
Production: NEF/Marianne Productions (Paris), Vides Cinematografica SAS (Rome), and Franz Seitz Productions (Munich); color, 35mm; running time: 118 minutes. Released 1971.
Cast: Lea Massari (Mother); Benoit Ferreux (Laurent); Daniel Gelin (Father); Marc Winocourt (Marc); Michel Lonsdale (Father Henry); Fabien Ferreux (Thomas).
Malle, Louis, Le Souffle au coeur, Paris, 1971.
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* * *
For all the deliberate diversity and stylistic versatility of Louis Malle's films—qualities for which he has often been criticized— certain clear thematic preoccupations can readily be seen to recur in his work. One such favorite theme is adolescence, which he handles with consistent sympathy and sensitivity—albeit from widely different standpoints—in Zazie dans le Métro, Lacombe Lucien, Black Moon, Pretty Baby and, most successfully of all, in Le Souffle au coeur.
Malle has described Souffle au coeur as "my first film." In fact it was his eighth feature; but it was the first which he had scripted entirely himself, and was also, he felt, "my first happy, optimistic film." Loosely based on reminiscences of Malle's own childhood, the film represents a world seen entirely from the viewpoint of its 15-year-old hero, Laurent, who is present in every scene. Little in the episodic plot is unpredictable: the boy hates his father, loves his mother, veers uncontrollably between infancy and adulthood, and is fascinated, perplexed and disconcerted by his own rampant, unfocused sexuality. The film's freshness lies in the complexity and ironic affection with which Malle depicts Laurent's fumbling attempts at self-definition, and in the physical immediacy of the family which surrounds him—a rich, convincing mixture of jokes, rows, awkwardness, horseplay, feuds and alliances.
Le Souffle au coeur also evocatively re-creates haut-bourgeois provincial society of the early 1950s—the adults obsessed with the imminent fall of Dien-Bien-Phu, their children far more interested in Camus or the latest Charlie Parker album. Beneath the light-hearted charm and the period detail, Malle's concern, as so often in his films, is with the struggle of the individual to assert an independent existence in the face of society's demands (and especially those of the family). Laurent's illness (the "heart murmur" of the title) is shown as a response to the insistent pressures of the world about him—a tactical withdrawal which corresponds, in the more tragic context of Le Feu follet or La Vie privée, with the protagonist's suicide. His liberation from this impasse comes through the act of incest with his mother, a crucial moment treated by Malle with exceptional subtlety and discretion, and played with total conviction by Benoît Ferreux and Lea Massari.
At the time, this scene caused considerable scandal. The French government refused the film its sanction as the official French entry at Cannes, and also banned it from being shown on ORTF (thus automatically entailing the loss of a sizable subsidy). Malle's fault, apparently, was not in having depicted mother-son incest, but in having presented it as an event to be looked back on, in the mother's words, "not with remorse, but with tenderness. . . as something beautiful." Had he shown the participants tormented by guilt, or driven to suicide, it would presumably have been found more acceptable.
Despite official disapproval, or possibly because of it—Le Souffle au Coeur was well received at Cannes, widely distributed in France and abroad, and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Script. With the controversy now long forgotten, the film can be taken on its own terms, and seen as one of Malle's most personal, engaging, and thoroughly accomplished works.