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The Criterion Collection presents
Three Films by Louis Malle (Murmur of the Heart / Lacombe, Lucien / Au revoir les enfants) (1971-1987)

"He would treat a cineplex like a buffet and he would do 15 minutes in one movie and then he would go to the next theater and do 15-20 minutes depending on... how much he felt it merited."
- Candice Bergen, discussing an evening at the movies with her late husband, Louis Malle

Review By: Nate Meyers  
Published: April 05, 2006

Stars: Benoît Ferreux, Leá Massari, Pierre Blaise, Aurore Clément, Holger Löwenadler, Gaspard Manesse, Raphaël Fejtö
Other Stars: Daniel Gélin, Michael Lonsdale, Ave Ninchi, Gila von Weitershausen, Fabien Ferreux, Mare Winocourt, Corinne Kersten, François Werner, Jacqueline Chauvaud, Thérèse Giehse, Stéphane Bouy, Loumi Iacobesco, René Bouloc, Pierre Decazes, Jean Rougerie, Cécile Ricard, Gilberte Rivet, Jacques Rispal, Jean Bousquet, Francine Racette, Stanislas Carré de Malberg, Philippe Morier-Genoud, François Berléand, François Négret, Peter Fitz
Director: Louis Malle

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: R for (sexuality, nudity, adult themes, language in Murmur of the Heart; Lacombe, Lucien rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence; Au revoir les enfants rated PG for thematic content)
Run Time: 06h:00m:47s
Release Date: March 28, 2006
UPC: 037429212929
Genre: foreign


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
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Audio Transfer
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Extras
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A A-A-B- A

DVD Review

French filmmaker Louis Malle is perhaps a lesser-known member of the nouvelle vague. Every bit as involved in France's revolutionary film movement as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Goddard, Malle seems to be largely ignored by both American and French audiences. Perhaps the fact that he departed France in the late 1970s to work in Hollywood taints him, allowing both camps to label him a misfit. Frankly, I can't think of a higher compliment for this daring, inventive genius. Beginning by documenting Cousteau's explorations, moving onto studio productions, then back to documentary, traveling across the Atlantic and finally returning to Europe, Malle's career always charted new territory. One gets the sense that the man was never satisfied with his work.

The filmography of Louis Malle is sprawling, but it is his films on youth that seem to encapsulate his unique persona best. After returning from India in the late 1960s, where he made the documentaries Calcutta and Phantom India, Malle began work on a small, controversial comedy. Watching it, one would never think that this marks the first installment of an unofficial trilogy that would culminate in what is arguably his best work. For all fans of the movies, Criterion presents them in a marvelous boxed set they call Three Films by Louis Malle.



"I think a lot about death in general." - Laurent Chevalier

Murmur of the Heart (Le Souffle au coeur)
1971
(01h:58m:11s)

Set in Dijon during the spring of 1954, Murmur of the Heart (Le Souffle au coeur) observes the pubescent fruition of an intelligent, affluent boy. Laurent Chevalier (Benoît Ferreux) exudes a physical awkwardness, from his lanky legs to his elongated head, and sexual frustration that would make Freud drool. He is clearly the brightest student in his class, but his true interests are jazz and sex. Along with older brothers Thomas and Marc (Fabien Ferreux and Marc Wonocourt, respectively), Laurent raises hell by playing spinach tennis at the dinner table, visiting a prostitute, harassing the maid, and stirring up a healthy dose of mischief when his extended family visits. However, within the young boy lies a deeply troubled mind obsessed with suicide and, worse yet, indulging in Oedipal fantasies.

This doesn't sound like a comedy, but Malle's film is a hilarious, screwball celebration of a young man's passage from childhood to adult life. I won't divulge what route Laurent travels on this journey, partly because the conclusion is so shocking that I can still barely comprehend it. The story seems to be unfolding before us as if it is really happening. Laurent and his mother, Clara (Leá Massari), visit a spa after doctors diagnose the boy with a heart murmur. Through a booking error, the two practically sleep in the same room and Mom's luscious curves not only capture the eyes of Laurent's friends, but Laurent himself. There's an audacious charm to Malle's script, not getting its laughs from punchlines but rather from Laurent's dispassionate social interactions with young girls he is clearly sexually attracted to, the fetching Hélène (Jacqueline Chauvaud) and her friend.

Murmur of the Heart thrives on dangling taboo subject matter in our face and twisting it into an unsettling comedy. None of the movie's edge has softened in the past 35 years, which means it is as likely to divide audiences today as when it first premiered. Laurent and Clara's relationship invokes a squeamish reaction in me, but the competence of the filmmaking and acting overrides that uncomfortable feeling. Ferreux's performance is quietly powerful, tapping into the inadequacies and inexperience of adolescence perfectly. Leá Massari is also effective in her role, oozing sexuality just enough to rationalize Laurent's behavior while not pushing the envelope too far.

Set to the thriving beat of Charlie Parker's music, Malle's film is a brisk romp. His elegant visuals capture the stuffed-shirt nature of the Chevaliers, while the sound design suggests a rebellious undercurrent. The direction evokes the same social refinement of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and My Man Godfrey, but his screenplay is equal parts chic and iconoclastic. What could be more screwball than that?



"It's as if my whole life's been lived in time to that music." - Albert Horn, musing about Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

Lacombe, Lucien
1974
(02h:17m:47s)

In the sobering Lacombe, Lucien, Malle delivers an uncompromising character study of a young country boy who, under ordinary circumstances, may have been a quiet family man working out his existence with integrity and skill. The 17-year-old Lucien Lacombe (Pierre Blaise) toils in occupied France during the waning months of World War II. Performing janitorial duties in a hospital, Lucien is a skilled hunter and kind to his mother, giving her much of his own earnings as they eke their way through the Vichy government's corrupt reign. Yet, he is restless and in need of action. Being the dutiful Frenchman, Lucien attempts to join the Resistance, only to be rebuked by his former teacher (Jean Bousquet).

The script, by Malle and Patrick Modiano, allows most of the scenes to play without any dialogue. When German collaborators pick up a drunken Lucien for breaking curfew, he divulges secrets about the Resistance almost without realizing it. There's no malice in his action, for intellectually and psychologically Lucien is a small child looking to be accepted (he even introduces himself with the pretentious bureaucratic name listing, "Lacombe, Lucien"). Under the tutelage of a count, Jean-Bernard (Stéphane Bouy), Lucien becomes more and more engrossed in the Gestapo, even actively participating in arresting suspects. It's important to note that Lucien himself is not particularly violent, but that his emotional immaturity presents the potential for violent acts. Hobnobbing with the Gestapo at the hotel bar, the erratic youth soon places himself in a dangerous situation by falling in love with France Horn (Aurore Clément), a Jewish girl trying to hold out with her father, Albert (Holger Löwenadler), in an attic apartment.

Much of the film is located in that claustrophobic apartment, as Lucien continuously harasses the Horns without, technically, harassing them. Complex relationships emerge between Lucien, the father and his daughter. France willingly, perhaps rebelliously, takes Lucien into her bed, causing Albert to despise them both. Yet, simultaneously, Albert begs pardon from his daughter and, in a strange way, seems to admire Lucien. Perhaps more than in any of his other films, this story is filled with ambiguity. Much of one's interpretation of the material will depend on the reading of the performances. Both Pierre Blaise and Aurore Clément are non-actors, chosen for their authenticity as opposed to their skills, which does create rather opaque performances. This, I think, is a bold decision that pays off in the end. Watching the first half of the movie, it's tempting to think the acting is poor. But, upon further reflection, I came to see that the young pair is presenting the effect of evil, how it robs us of our humanity. Professional actors might be too enraptured in technique to allow these characters, devoid of their own sense of self, the authenticity this story necessitates.

As usual with Malle, the filmmaking is exceptional. There's a foreboding tone in the cinematography that is constantly engaging. Things play out slowly, developing almost like a documentary, and the result is a movie that isn't commenting on French collaboration with the Nazis, but merely examining how, under certain circumstances, normal people can be corrupted by their environment. Made in the wake of The Sorrow and the Pity, this is a marvelous follow-up piece that fictionally chronicle how good men and women abandoned justice. In this film, Malle quietly unravels a disheartening chapter in human history. Lucien Lacombe's actions are reason for outrage, but Lacombe, Lucien is reason for rejoice.



"Are there wolves in these woods?" - Jean Bonnet

Au revoir les enfants1987
(01h:44m:49s)

Returning to France after nearly a decade in the US, Malle crafts a subtle film about the death of innocence at a parochial school in January 1944. The story of Au revoir les enfants is inspired by a true incident that happened to the writer-director as he studied in an apparent haven from World War II. There's an inescapable tragedy awaiting the audience and characters in, to my thinking, Malle's masterwork.

Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) and his older brother, François (Stanislas Carré de Malberg), depart Paris on a train headed to southwest France. The melancholic Julien laments his return to the Carmelite school and begging his mother (Francine Racette) to let him stay. But it is infeasible at this time, with the American invasion only months away and the fires of war pounding on everyone's door. Upon arrival, Julien continues to excel in his schoolwork and even enjoys pleasant exchanges with the monks, Father Michel (François Berléand) and Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud), the schoolmaster. Malle's script is full of keen insights into the monotony and shenanigans of the life, with the boys freezing during recess and developing a black market, thanks to the crippled cooking assistant, Joseph (François Négret). There's camaraderie amongst the boys, who mostly come from wealthy families, but a new face arrives when school begins this session.

Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö) is easily Julien's intellectual equal, but his quiet demeanor makes him the perfect target for torment. Picked on by the other boys, Bonnet is left to read his books without a single friend, despite his sincere attempt to discuss literature with Julien. Not until Father Jean, a truly pious man, tells Julien to befriend Bonnet does the new student find any solace with another individual. The two form a touching friendship, bonding over piano music and even reading Arabian Nights in secret. During a scavenger hunt, the two become lost and are discovered by German soldiers. Frightened beyond description, Bonnet runs and the two boys are nearly arrested. Fortunately, they are left with a warning and returned to the care of Father Jean. Julien has deduced that Bonnet is Jewish, and has been given sanctuary by the school.

It may be obvious what happens from what I've mentioned above, certainly there's a strong premonition one gets while watching the film. After various incidents come into play, Malle devastates his audience in the film's concluding act. Filled with sorrow, I forgot myself, as if I was living right alongside these boys. Scenes of the children hiding in a bomb shelter and praying the Hail Mary are effective, recalling the true experiences of so many European children during the war years. Another touching moment is when Julien awakens to Bonnet praying on the Sabbath, celebrating his faith in the transcendent glow of candlelight. The child actors are astonishingly good, with both Manesse and Fejtö turning in captivating performances. They achieve a maturity and innocence in their line readings, never coming across as actors but more as the actual people they're portraying. Philippe Morier-Genoud is also impressive, playing Father Jean as a holy man weary of the world's brutality.

Malle's passion for the subject matter is on full display at all times. While this is certainly a powerful look at the Holocaust, albeit an indirect one, his touching direction keeps the film from being a sad one. Placing the story's emphasis on the boys' friendship, Malle celebrates childhood, which makes the closing moments even more effective. His matter-of-fact filmmaking is realism at its best, with the cinematography bringing the cold winter right into the audience and the sparse music elevating the precedings to an ethereal level. In making Au revoir les enfants, Malle is saying goodbye to his own childhood. Such a shame, isn't it?

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: All three movies are preserved in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The anamorphic transfers are deliciously detailed, containing rich blacks and a remarkable sense of depth that create a strong filmlike feel. The three films have been cleaned up significantly, creating the best home video presentation for each one to date. Au revoir les enfants does, unfortunately, have a noticeable amount of mosquito noise and grain, but otherwise these transfers are virtually flawless.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrenchno


Audio Transfer Review: The French monaural sound mixes represent the original theatrical experience in a fittingly subdued manner. Apart from a seemingly unending hiss on Lacombe, Lucien these tracks are clean and a compliment the visuals nicely.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 63 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
3 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
3 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Boxed Set
Picture Disc
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Inserts—a booklet for each disc in this set containing essays, a Louis Malle filmography, and DVD technical details.
  2. Interviews—video interviews with Malle biographer Pierre Billard and widow Candice Bergen.
  3. Audio Recordings—interviews with Louis Malle at the American Film Institute and National Film Theatre.
  4. The Immigrant—Charles Chaplin's 1917 comedic short film.
Extras Review: As is to be expected, Criterion dishes out a sophisticated collection of supplementals. This four-disc set contains individual Amaray keep cases for each film, as well as for the fourth disc of special features, packaged in a slipcase. The artwork on all is splendid. Accompanying each film is an insert containing an essay, as well as technical specifications regarding the DVD.

On Murmur of the Heart, film critic Michael Sragow offers All in the Family, a review of the movie that interweaves Malle's place in film history and love of the American comedy. Lacombe, Lucien is accompanied by Pauline Kael's original New Yorker review, which is far too lengthy. For Au revoir les enfants, critic Philip Kemp turns in a finely written review entitled Childhood's End.Au revoir is an essay, Père Jacques and the Petit-Collège d'Avon, on the monk who inspired the character of Father Jean. Written by historian Francis J. Murphy, the essay chronicles the true and inspiring story of Father Jacques.

Also, each movie's original theatrical trailer is presented on its respective disc. The Lacombe, Lucien trailer is shown in nonanamorphic 1.33:1 video, while the others are all in anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen. Au revoir les enfants also has a teaser trailer, which contains a portion of a deleted scene. All are in French and contain optional English subtitles.

With regard to the fourth disc, there is yet another insert containing DVD credits as well as a Louis Malle filmography. Content pertaining to the disc itself begins with Pierre Billard on Louis Malle (30m:40s), a video interview with Malle's associate and biographer. Billard explains Malle's formative years and his personal reaction to the events on that January morning in 1944. He also relays the filmmaker's fighting spirit, touching upon his career and abandonment of religion, in a thoroughly engaging manner. Candice Bergen (13m:32s) is a second interview with Malle's widow. She gives a unique look at his personality, divulging his movie-going habits and relationship to both the French and American film industries. A nice addition to this interview is its inclusion of behind-the-scenes footage from Au revoir les enfants.

Following the interviews are two featurettes from the French TV show Pour le cinéma. The first, on Murmur of the Heart (7m:48s), aired on April 4, 1971. The second focuses on Lacombe, Lucien (11m:58s) and aired on February 6, 1974. Both contain a lot of movie clips, but also give screen time to Malle and the cast to hype the project and discuss some of the films' themes.

Three audio recordings of Louis Malle discussing the cinema offer a lot more insight. Beginning with Louis Malle at AFI (53m:06s), Malle talks candidly about his life and opinions about filmmaking. In this first installment, from 1988, some of the comments pertain to his hatred of writing and why he turned towards his childhood so late in his career. The next two recordings spotlight Malle at the National Film Theatre. The first (40m:48s), from June 4, 1974 spends a lot of time discussing Lacombe, Lucien. He also mentions his relationship to Robert Bresson and explains his lack of interest in music. The third interview, from February 1, 1990, is a retrospective of his career and clocks in at just under 53 minutes. Of all three recordings, this is the best; it touches upon his childhood, family, early career, and just about every other facet one can imagine. A highly informative experience.

An especially nice bonus is the Charles Chaplin silent short, The Immigrant (25m:12s), from 1917. Featured in Au revoir les enfants, this movie is quintessential Chaplin with some marvelous plot devices and physical comedy. On a more serious note, the special features round out with Joseph: A Character Study (05m:20s). Made by Guy Magen, this piece comes across as a pretentious reflection on the character from Au revoir. However, the special features for this boxed set are excellent.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

The Criterion Collection delivers a knock-out with Three Films by Louis Malle, containing some of the director's best work in these touching, powerful motion pictures about youth and innocence lost. The presentation is exceptional and the accompanying fourth disc of supplemental features is exquisite.

 


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