Malle was born in 1932 in Thumeries, near to Lille in northern France, into a comfortable bourgeois family which had made a fortune in sugar production dating back to the Napoleonic wars. In 1940, at the age of 12, he attended a Catholic boarding school near Paris (with his three brothers), a school which was sheltering Jewish pupils. The tragic events of this time are documented in Malle’s poignant 1987 film, Au Revoir les Enfants.
After the war, Malle began a degree course in political science at the Institut d’études politiques in Paris but, against his parents’ wishes, switched to a course on film studies at the Institut des Hautes ètudes Cinématographiques. Almost immediately after that, he was recruited as a camera operator for the famous underwater explorer, Jacques-Yves Cousteau. He worked as co-director on Costeau’s celebrated documentary film, Le Monde du silence in 1956, before working as an assistant for cult film director Robert Bresson.
The late 1950s and early 1960s was an exciting and turbulent time for French cinema, with a whole host of young new directors finding immediate fame. One of these New Wave directors was Louis Malle, who won instant recognition for his first solo film as a director, L’Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958). This film featured Jeanne Moreau, an actress who would become a favourite for the other New Wave directors (most notably François Truffaut).
Jeanne Moreau starrred in Malle’s next film, Les Amants, a tender yet explicit depiction of a frustrated housewife’s desire for an extra-marital affair. The film was both condemned and censored in the United States for its extended nude bedroom scenes, which were pretty erotic and daring for the time (1959).
Perhaps the defining characteristic of Louis Malle’s filmography is its variety, arising from the director’s determination never to repeat himself. This is reflected most strongly in his next film, Zazie dans le métro (1960), which is a total contrast to his preceding films. The film is an energetic comic farce in which a young girl wreaks mayhem and havoc when her plan to travel on the Paris underground is thwarted by a strike.
Other successes followed, including Vie privée (1962), in which Brigitte Bardot played a virtual parody of her real-life persona and Le feu follet (1963), a melancholic yet powerful study of a writer on the brink of killing himself.
Having made Les Voleurs in 1967, Malle admitted that he was tired of western film making and, in 1969, he travelled to India, where he made two uncompromising documentaries about the poverty he saw in that country, Calcutta and L’Inde Fantome.
After his return to France, Malle again courted controversy with his next film, Le Souffle au Coeur, an affectionate look at adolescence which included an incestuous relationship between a young woman and her teenage son. Malle’s second film about youth, Lacombe Lucien (1974), was no less controversial for its depiction of collaboration and childhood corruption in war-time France during the Nazi occupation.
In the late 1970s, in search of new inspiration and new territory, Louis Malle moved to the United States, where he would make half a dozen or so films, many of which won critical acclaim. These include Pretty Baby (1978), a story about a photographer and a pre-teenage prostitute (played by Brooke Shields, her first major role) and Atlantic City (1980), a curious romance involving a gangster and a younger woman.
The pinnacle of Malle’s film making career followed his return to France with Au revoir les enfants (1987), an autobiographical and intensely moving account of his war-time schooldays which won two Oscar nominations. This was followed by a light-hearted satirical comedy, Milou en Mai (1989), whose theme was bourgeois complacency during the 1968 demonstrations in Paris.
Malle’s final film was Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), a modest, unusual screen adaptation of Chekov’s play Uncle Vanya. He died the following year, on 23 November 1995 from a cancer-related illness. His film legacy shows a virtually unparallelled versatility which makes each one of his films unique, including entertaining comedies or thought-provoking dramas.
Louis Malle is best-known for the following films:
The Film DirectorLouis Malle directed the following films:
Vive le tour (1962) (short)
Close Up (1976) (short)