One of France's most renowned directors, Louis Malle first gained recognition as a member of his country's New Wave movement of the 1950s. He went on to direct films of great breadth and variety, consciously avoiding the temptation to repeat himself. Many of Malle's films tended to be very personal affairs that focused on some form of societal exclusion, and on more than one occasion he rejected opportunities to work in Hollywood so as to have more time to lavish greater attention on his individual projects. His efforts paid off: By the time of his death from cancer in 1995, Malle was hailed for his invaluable contributions to both French and world cinema.
Born into great wealth, Malle had the advantages of an expensive college education, which started in the study of Political Science but ended up with filmmaking classes. A protégé of underwater photographer/director Jacques-Yves Cousteau, he received his first director's credit on Cousteau's The Silent World (1956), which served to introduce both men to the international film scene. After working as an assistant to cult-favorite director Robert Bresson, Malle made his first solo film, the award-winning Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud/Frantic (1957), a mystery-melodrama in the Diabolique mold and distinguished by an improvisational Miles Davis music score and powerful performance by Jeanne Moreau.
With Les Amants/The Lovers (1959), Malle gained notoriety for staging what were then considered graphic sex scenes, pushing the boundaries of American censorship. Fortunately, the film's underlying message -- an attack on French class consciousness -- was appreciated by a number of film critics who managed to look beyond the sensation surrounding the film, for which the director won several festival awards. His next effort, Zazie Dans Le Metro (1960), was as harmless as his previous film had been controversial; a gleefully impertinent comedy, it told the story of a young girl who runs away from her relatives and the chaos created by her flight.
Malle once again raised eyebrows in America with 1962's La Vie Privée/A Very Private Affair, a Brigitte Bardot vehicle allegedly based upon the actress' own life. The more serious international critics were impressed by his next film, Le Feu Follet/The Fire Within (1963), the alternately repellent and fascinating account of the last days in the life of an alcoholic (played by Maurice Ronet). As with Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud, Le Feu was enhanced by a strong music score, composed in this case by Erik Satie. More controversy came the director's way with his 1969 documentary L'Inde Fantome/Phantom India, which caused the Indian government to lodge a complaint against Malle's unblinking look at the country's appalling poverty. Le Souffle au Coeur/Murmur of the Heart (1971), an Italian-German co-production, was a gentle comedy about the subject of incest and family values, while Lacombe Lucien (1974) was a dissection of France under Nazi occupation; both films, however, tended to solidify Malle's reputation as a "sex" director in the eyes of those who couldn't see beyond this element.
Sex was a theme once again in Pretty Baby (1978), Malle's first American film, in which Brooke Shields (in her first important role) played a 12-year-old New Orleans prostitute. The film stirred up the would-be censors of the world, but the fuss was truly unnecessary; the film was more atmospheric than erotic, eschewing graphic depiction for thought-provoking insights on the nature of desire. Malle's next effort, Atlantic City (1980) was widely hailed as his best American film, featuring topnotch performances from Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon. What might have become a seamy look at American subculture in lesser hands became a life-affirming romance, making an unlikely hero out of an erstwhile drug courier. The film won numerous international honors, including a British Academy Award for Best Direction for Malle. Similarly acclaimed was My Dinner with André (1982), a filmed dialogue between experimental theater director André Gregory and actor/playwright Wallace Shawn; a testament to Malle's skill as a director, the film managed to be absorbing enough to hold audiences for what was essentially a 90-minute conversation.
Malle subsequently received some of the greatest acclaim of his career with Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987). Based upon his own experience as a young boy in Nazi-occupied France, the film was a cathartic portrait of courage, betrayal, and the horrible effects of anti-Semitism. It won numerous international awards, including three French Césars -- for Best Film, Director, and Screenplay -- and was praised for its unsentimental depiction of unlikely friendship and lost innocence. Commuting between Europe and the U.S. during the last few years of his life (often in the company of his third wife, actress Candice Bergen), Malle continued to offer works of great visual beauty and muted social observation, with May Fools (1989) and the controversial Damage (1992) keeping him in the international spotlight. He directed his last film in 1994; a triumphant, unorthodox adaptation of Chekov's play as directed by previous collaborator André Gregory, Vanya on 42nd Street was a radiant end to Malle's long and distinguished career. He died of cancer on November 23, 1995, survived by wife Bergen and their daughter Chloe. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi