Monday, February 10, 2014

Murmur of the Heart (Le Souffle Au Coeur) (1971)

Director Louis Malle looks back on his own growing up years, specifically his teens and comes up with a splendid semi-autobiographical coming-of-age account that is "Murmur of the Heart" (1971). One wonders if it has anything to do with the fact that the film is French, but Malle's handling of some downright scandalous and eyebrow-raising episodes in the film is so delicate and lighthearted, it simply has to be seen to be believed!

It is the 1950s, and 14 year old Laurent Chevalier (Benoît Ferreux) is having a jolly time growing up in his bourgeois family of a well-to-do but curmudgeon father (Daniel Gélin), a Gynecologist by profession and his much younger, comely mother of Italian descent, Clara (Lea Massari). Laurent has two older brothers who keep bullying him and taking his case, but all in a playful way of course. The brothers bond well, the father mostly neglects Laurent, but Clara clearly has him for a favorite. 

There is quite an unrestrained and casual atmosphere in the family. The older sons have rather frank talks with their little brother who claims he is not little anymore. They play around, frolic in bed, discuss and brag about their manhood, and while their parents are away, very openly indulge in booze, smokes and make-out sessions with their friends, even in the presence of their portly, kindly maid Augusta (Ave Ninchi). 

The first half of the film is mostly a chronicling of such events and Laurent's bizarre encounters. Be it his attempts at losing his virginity, at a brothel no less, with the help of his brothers that leads to disastrous results, or the awkward confession session with the hypocritical school priest (Michael Lonsdale) who feels up Laurent's thighs while explaining to him about sin and the vileness of the bodily desires of man! This part does come off as a tad stereotypical. Not all priests have to hit on their choir boys, but it fits well within the context and at a stage when the boys' curiosity about sexual matters is out through the roof.

Malle writes scenes and creates situations which may seem shocking to the prudish, more specifically in the second half which was a subject of some controversy upon the film's release. There are overtones of Laurent's incestuous attraction to his beautiful mother. It is not a lustful attraction per se, but an admiration developed from the warm affection constantly showered by her and of course, the comparatively less age difference between the young mother and her sons. 

It hardly comes off as a lascivious urge, but in fact, only curiosity that makes him watch observantly as his mother takes a bath. Naysayers and conservative folks may be in denial, however, one can't help but think how realistic the events surrounding the boy's psychological development are. In the scheme of things it is completely believable that Laurent, who is the apple of his mother's eye, is constantly showered with exuberant hugs and kisses that perhaps a boy his age may experience differently. The two are in fact, more buddies than a mother-son pair.

Laurent does insist at one point that she should stop treating him like a six year old! So does Father Henri in one scene as he suggests that it is about time his mother started treating him like an adult, given his intelligence. Now whether he says it out of jealousy or genuine concern is another ambiguity quite cleverly thrown in by Malle! It doesn't help matters that Clara has a husband much older, and she does have some flirtatious ways around younger men and is having an affair too, which never comes to light. And that is a good thing, for Malle steers clear of the unnecessary cliches that come with such a revelation and its aftermath in the family. Clara's affair is kept in the background, and all it does is it strengthens the route that eventually leads to the culmination that may have seemed cheap but ends up being tender and affectionate.

It is quite wondrous an achievement the way Malle pulls some of these scenes off. The undercurrents of a fleeting, homosexual attraction experienced by one of the boys toward Laurent and his momentary reciprocation during the boys' camping trip is difficult to miss, yet not taken to levels even remotely explicit. It just comes across as a casual fondness and brushed aside by Laurent as just that, when the boy asks if he could sleep next to him. In fact, the film lends a breezy, comic touch to some of the more bold content thereby ensuring that it makes for a light, entertaining cinematic experience.

Malle's film is an extremely well-balanced and mature examination of a teenaged boy experiencing his sexual awakening. It can also be regarded in part as a satire on the bourgeois lifestyle. A lot of the film's great scenes like the spinach fight are snippets from Malle's own life and they add a nice, warm touch to the film. You may not see many other films in which a mother discusses her adulterous affair with her son and the son listens and empathizes with his mother's boyfriend troubles! Or even find instances in which some older boys ask to get introduced to the protagonist's hot mother, while the son ends up feeling jealous of his mother's growing closeness to them!

None of this, however, seems so earth-shattering given the progression and the manner in which Malle gets us acquainted to his characters. This is where the filmmaker's true genius is revealed. He builds a strong foundation and gradually adds layers in a way that the audiences lap up each succeeding episode with a nonchalance that would otherwise not exist!

Of course, one of the major aspects that makes all this work are the two lead performances. Lea Massari and debutant Benoît Ferreux make the film. It is their fantastic acts that render the special touch that bolster's Malle's film and make it the unique masterwork that it is. Malle is a revered filmmaker and "Murmur of the Heart" is certainly one of the major reasons why he is held in such high esteem.

Score: 10/10

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