Murmur of the Heart (Le souffle au coeur)

Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: Louis Malle
Stars: Léa Massari (Clara Chevalier), Benoît Ferreux (Laurent Chevalier), Daniel Gélin (The Father), Fabien Ferreux (Thomas Chevalier), Marc Winocourt (Marc Chevalier), Michel Lonsdale (Father Henri), Ave Ninchi (Augusta), Gila von Weitershausen (Freda, the prostitute)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1971
Country: France / Italy / West Germany
Murmur of the Heart Criterion Collection DVD
Murmur of the HeartWriter/director Louis Malle once said, “It is only when memory is filtered through imagination that the films we make will have real depth.”

With the possible exception of 1987’s Au revoir les enfants, Murmur of the Heart, Malle's 1971 coming-of-age comedy/drama, is the best example of this cinematic philosophy. Although the film is best remembered for its deft treatment of a topic as potentially repulsive as incest, in fact it should be remembered for its keen ability to render the fumbling antics of early adolescent boyhood with an acute eye and a tender touch. Malle based much of the film on his own experiences growing up and added the fictional incest element and a few others to make a well-crafted film that has every reason to be shocking, but somehow never is.

The story takes place in Dijon, France in 1954 and involves Laurent Chevalier (Benoît Ferreux), a gangly, precocious, intellectual 15-year-old who is fighting to make sense of himself and the world around him. His journey is both helped and hindered by those around him, especially his influential, but self-possessed and obnoxious older brothers, Thomas (Fabien Ferreux) and Marc (Marc Winocourt). They are the kind of siblings who pay for Laurent to lose his virginity to a prostitute, and then drunkenly interrupt the encounter before it’s finished, thus humiliating Laurent and ruining any possibility of good memories.

Laurent’s easy-going, upper-class life is upended when it is discovered that he has a heart murmur. Because Laurent is the member of a rich, bourgeois family, headed by his emotionally distant father (Daniel Gélin) who is a successful gynecologist, Laurent is sent to live at an expensive health spa to recuperate. He stays there with his mother, Clara (Léa Massari), who is hardly a model mother figure. She is something of a free spirit, a roaming, saucy, unapologetically sensual woman who admits her lack of modesty while undressing in front of her son. She more or less openly carries on an extramarital affair, and flirts with the boys at the spa.

While the first half of Murmur of the Heart is given to documenting Laurent’s various boyhood escapades, the second hour details his growing relationship with Clara. There is an uncertain aspect to their mother/son dealings, especially when they kiss or hug or wrestle, and this eventually climaxes with the controversial moment of incest, which is filmed with what can only be described under the circumstances as the utmost discretion and taste. Everything about the film has been so believable and well-paced up to that point that you simply accept the incest as a logical extension of their jealous, complex relationship.

Malle drew much from his own life to paint this portrait of awkward sex and boyish wandering. Unlike most of his French New Wave contemporaries, Malle grew up in the bourgeois lifestyle and was able to attend an expensive film school. His knowledge of the lifestyle he portrays is obvious in the small details. He knows the adolescent allure of shoplifting, smoking, drinking, French kissing, masturbation, pulling pranks, engaging in brotherly fights, and laughing at snobbish jokes. Even when Laurent and his brothers are at their worst, there is still a kind of lighthearted jocularity that keeps them from becoming unbearable.

Their characters are aided greatly by the wonderful performances, especially Benoît Ferreux as Laurent. He has the kind of fresh-faced, long-limbed appeal that is absolutely necessary for the role. His antics with his siblings (one of whom is played by his real-life brother, Fabien) are the core of the film because, if we can’t believe in them, the more far-reaching aspects of the story would feel completely implausible.

In the end, Malle’s characters are endearing despite their flaws simply because they are real. Malle doesn't whitewash them and make them what they are not. They are rich and spoiled and they make stupid decisions and try to grow up too fast. However, Malle’s simple understanding of their thoughts and emotions grounds the film, allowing the audience to join the fun without feeling ashamed or offended.

Murmur of the Heart Criterion Collection DVD
3 Films by Louis MalleMurmur of the Heart is available individually or as part of the Criterion Collection’s four-disc box set “3 Films by Louis Malle,” which also includes Lacombe, Lucien and Au revoir les efants along with a fourth disc of supplementary materials.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • New essay by film critic Michael Sragow

    Supplementary disc includes:

  • New interviews with actor Candice Bergen and biographer Pierre Billard
  • Excerpts from a French TV program featuring the director on the sets of Murmur of the Heart and Lacombe, Lucien
  • Audio interviews with Louis Malle from 1972, 1988, and 1990
  • The Immigrant, Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 short comedy
  • A profile of the provocative character of Joseph from Au revoir les enfants, created by filmmaker Guy Magen in 2005
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$29.95 (disc) / $79.95 (box set)
    Release DateMarch 28, 2006

    All three films in the box set are presented in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratio in excellent new high-definition transfers, two of which were supervised by the original cinematographers. The transfer for Murmur of the Heart, which was supervised by cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich, was taken from both the 35mm interpositive and internegative; the transfer for Lacombe, Lucien was taken from a 35mm interpositive; and the transfer for Au revoir les enfants, which was supervised by cinematographer Renato Berta, was taken from the original camera negative. The images on all three films were color corrected and then digitally restored, resulting in excellent picture quality that makes them look virtually brand-new. The film-like image is strong and well-detailed on each disc, with natural color and good black levels. Of the three, Au revoir les enfants probably looks the best because it is the newest and the source of its transfer was the original negative.

    All three films are presented with monaural soundtracks transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic track and digitally restored. All three are strong and crystal clear throughout.

    Murmur of the Heart is part of a four-disc box set that includes two other of Louis Malle’s films, Lacombe, Lucien (1974) ad Au revoir les enfants (1987), all of which share a coming-of-age theme. The only supplements included on the Murmur of the Heart disc are an original theatrical trailer in anamorphic widescreen a new essay by film critic Michael Sragow.

    The box set contains a fourth disc with an impressive array of supplements for all the films in the set. First of, there are two excellent new video interviews, one with actor Candice Bergen who was married to Malle from 1980 until his death in 1995, and another with Malle biographer Pierre Billard. Bergen talks openly and candidly about Malle’s life and work and is able to offer a poignant inside view to his art. Billard’s 30-minute interview is more general, touching primarily on the important events in Malle’s life and how he used them when making his films.

    Also included on the disc are excerpts from a French television program that feature interviews with Malle and footage of him working on the sets of Murmur of the Heart and Lacombe, Lucien. Malle also appears in three audio interviews: two of them are special Q&A sessions at the National Film Theatre in London (in 1974 and 1990) and one is from 1988 where he spoke at the American Film Institute.

    The disc also features The Immigrant, Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 two-reeler comedy that appears prominently in Au revoir les enfants. The transfer quality is quite good, with only a few brief rough spots to remind us that the film is nearly 90 years old (although the recreated intertitles, which look like they were done on an Apple II circa 1985, look awful). (On a side note, the inclusion of The Immigrant makes one long for a Criterion-worthy box set of Chaplin’s early short films, since the currently available DVDs all have problems of varying degrees.) Lastly, the supplements disc has a five-minute “character study” of Joseph from Au revoir les enfants, created by filmmaker and University of Paris professor Guy Magen in 2005.

    Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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