Standing at the juncture between perceptive art and slickly contrived artiness, Louis Malle has always been one of the more ungraspable figures associated with the French New Wave—and not always in the most productive of ways. While he has been celebrated for the discerning, non- judgmental gaze he has brought to such charged subjects as adultery (The Lovers, 1957), suicide (The Fire Within, 1963), incest (Murmur of the Heart, 1971), wartime collaboration (Lacombe Lucien, 1973) and child prostitution (Pretty Baby, 1978), one is often led to believe that Malle’s consistent refusal to fit his subjects into a conventional moral framework is less principled artistry than canny packaging, making his controversial material “acceptable” for the art houses and sidestepping charges of exploitation.
The lightness with which Malle skips along the surface of his subjects has something disingenuous about it, and yet unyoked from the equally heavy burdens of controversy or forced whimsy—as in his best film, The Thief of Paris (1967) with Jean- Paul Belmondo — Malle is able, by quiet, subtle accumulation of detail and shading, to build up considerable focus and force from what appears to be merely offhanded observation. The inner precision that is always at work within Malle’s films (and which can shade over into neatness and patness) belies his claims to neutrality. Malle always has a goal towards which he is working, but his observational vantage, his carefully maintained outsider status, allows that goal to be modified with the progression of events — an intrinsic openness that is most evident in the nearly three decades of documentary work which accompanied his lauded fiction filmmaking career.
Unlike Werner Herzog, who has declared ad nauseam that the distinction between his documentary and fiction work is a false one, Malle seems to have pursued his documentary career as another aspect of his artistic pursuits, an interruption to his fictions rather than a continuation of them. The recently issued Criterion box set, under their Eclipse label, of Malle’s documentaries has commendably brought attention to this other Malle, whose career was born contemporaneously with his more famous “fictional” double (we may recall that “William Phantom India (1969) Wilson”, Malle’s contribution to the 1968 Edgar Allan Poe anthology film Spirits of the Dead, was a doppelganger tale): in 1956, Malle served both as assistant on Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, a touchstone for the New Wave with which Malle would be associated, and as co- director on The Silent World, Jacques Cousteau’s Oscar-winning underwater documentary.
The eclecticism which was to become perhaps the only guiding thread of Malle’s subsequent career was thus present from the beginning, but while his documentaries share as broad a geographical and topical scope as his fiction features, there seems to be a more urgent, rooting interest in the nonfiction work. The locales which Malle investigates have an explicit and inextricable autobiographical content: his French birthplace, and its working class which invited little of his fictional interest but much of his political commitment; India, where a cultural mission with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs grew to a two-year personal odyssey, willfully cut adrift from the demands of commercial filmmaking; and America, his adopted home, evincing an authenticity he adores and an ideology he abhors.
The evidently personal quality of these films has consequences for Malle’s aesthetic as well. Even while they continue the observational stance that marks the narrative films, Malle’s documentaries constantly remind the viewer that the observer is observed as well, and thus implicated in the scene before him. More than an outsider, the filmmaker is an intruder, not simply capturing the reality in front of him but activating it and thus negating any pretense of invisibility or remove. For Malle, the returned gaze of the documentary subject necessitates not merely an admission from the filmmaker that reality is being shaped rather than just recorded, but an integration of that awareness into the shaping of the film itself.
The first of Malle’s documentary efforts, the cyclist celebration Vive le Tour! (1962) reveals the liberating effect of Malle’s ventures into nonfiction. Jaggedly edited by his longtime collaborator Suzanne Baron, and thrillingly propulsive, Malle’s view of France’s most-watched sporting event and his own personal passion retains its mood of exaltation even as it focuses incessantly on the agonizing physical toll of this grueling endurance contest. Beginning lightheartedly by examining how the competitors deal with calls of nature or other bodily needs—most hilariously a raid on a local pub, where cyclists take 45 seconds to rush through and relieve the proprietors of any available bottles (without paying, of course)—Malle turns his attention to mass wipeouts, gushing head wounds, and the dreadful spectacle of doping. (Rendered unconscious of their own physical limits by the drugs, cyclists keep moving until their bodies literally give out on them). The masterly final montage, intercutting close-ups on faces, strained and contorted with effort, with quick flashes of the winners’ podium, points up the immeasurable distance between the psychic satisfactions of victory and the willful tortures to which human beings will subject their bodies in pursuit of what seems a hardly compensatory goal.
While never identifying any of the competitors by name, Vive le Tour! is nonetheless a collective portrait of individuals, both celebrating their efforts and regarding their motives and behaviour with unblinking frankness. Yet while Malle’s later American films engage directly with that exemplar of democratic ideology, his own ennobling of the individual is shorn of any ideological allegiance—indeed, individualism can be employed precisely as a critique of democracy’s more contradictory impulses.
Perhaps his finest nonfiction work, Humain, trop humain (1973), an elegant and pointed tripartite investigation of a Citroen factory in Rennes, Brittany, is a marvelous reflection on the individual’s plight within the gears of mass production: effaced but never crushed, alienated but revealing personality even in the most mechanized gestures. Beginning with a chronological account of a car’s “birth” through the various stages of the production line, Malle then cuts to an enormous lot filled with the finished, seemingly indistinguishable products and then to an auto show where customers quibble and worry over the slight but innumerable distinctions within this sea of sameness.
The illusion of choice granted these consumers is denied the workers. Returning to the factory, Malle ruptures his previous automotive “narrative” to focus intently on the fragmented piecework, and the people who perform it. Remaining at a distance and forgoing dialogue, Malle observes the ritualized gestures of the workers, his compassionate eye remarking both the dreadful monotony of the tasks and the remarkable skill, concentration and attention accorded them by their practitioners. The polarity of these two qualities within the same set of actions is, of course, irresolvable—and the film’s telling title bespeaks not mere resignation
before the contradictions of existence, but a crystallization of anger, clarity and compassion, worthy of the best social chroniclers of the 20th century.
The sharpness and social awareness of Humain, trop humain is echoed, in gentler form, by its follow-up Place de la République (1974). A considerably looser, improvisatory work where Malle and his crew walk openly around the environs of the titular square, engaging passers-by in conversation, Place de la République creates a rather affecting sense of transience and quiet sadness. Casual conversation reveals tales of sickness, joblessness, uncertainty, indigence, exile, and death — all the more disturbing by reason of the openness and eagerness with which the tellers lay bare their lives before the intrusive eye of the camera.
What is writ microscopically in this fairly compact and self-contained film is painted on a dazzlingly broad canvas in Malle’s most ambitious, and longest, nonfiction work, the six-hour, seven-part Phantom India, originally broadcast on French television, and its companion theatrical feature Calcutta (both 1969). Malle and his two-man crew spent five months traveling unsystematically across India with no set distribution deal or outside funding, shooting what and where they liked, at least to the extent that their numerous subjects would allow them. Forgoing attempts at Western liberal “understanding,” Malle focuses continually on the opacity of the astonishing, disgusting, beautiful and distressing sights he encounters. The title of this magnum opus is apt: whenever the “reality” of India is apparently grasped, it evaporates once more.
The simultaneity of contradictory essences crops up repeatedly in Malle’s musings in Phantom India. Curtly and assertively cutting off the explanations of the European-educated Indian intelligentsia in the film’s first moments, Malle plunges into the country’s “reality” without the mediation of Western frames of knowledge but with the awareness that his own cultural background will inevitably colour the selective fragments of reality he films. Malle brings his own presence front and centre throughout by making concrete what, in cinematic convention, is usually invisible: the voice of the narrator and the eye of the camera.
“Have you ever heard a more stupid instruction than ‘Don’t look into the camera’?” mused Chris Marker’s vicar
Sandor Krasna in Sans Soleil (1982). Stupid, indeed, because it denies the magical temporal connection which film can effect with that returned look. Malle invites his subjects to stare back, to render visible by their gaze the bodies of their interlocutors at the moment of filming. Months afterwards, his narrating voice will try to frame that moment for the audience who will eventually see the film. All the more complex for its simplicity, the bridge of the returned gaze both illuminates the vast distances between the person filmed and the person viewing and brings them into an inseparable proximity, forcing the viewer to grapple with the contradictions of their own cognition.
The distinction between “truth” and “falsehood” which Malle highlights in his Indian films is not simply an academic nicety, but an innate function of seeing and hearing, and then trying to frame and assimilate what has been seen and heard. Malle’s narration brings this struggle to the forefront throughout Phantom India. While reviewing footage of a sequence depicting a religious procession led by an enormous, dangerously tottering flower-decked chariot, Malle contrasts the scorn he feels for the supplicant faithful to the exhilarating terror of being there while filming—and accords neither reaction the mantle of a greater “authenticity.” The immediate experience is not innately more truthful than later reflection. A village hearing that appears to Malle at the time of filming to be an invigorating exercise in Athenian direct democracy is later revealed to be a farce, a rigged decision made by a magistrate in league with the region’s wealthy landowners. Distance, whether temporal, geographical, or cultural, can both obscure and clarify. As Malle’s relentless interrogation of his own motives and those of the people before his camera demonstrates, the “authentic” can best, and perhaps only, be discerned by making oneself ceaselessly aware of what lens one is looking through at any given moment.
The spectre of post-structuralism haunting the preceding comments shouldn’t mislead one from the basic simplicity of Malle’s method. The complexity he reveals arises from his directness, intuition, compassion and technical skill, not from any theoretical framework. At the conclusion of Calcutta, Malle ventures into a shantytown afflicted with a horrifying mixture of poverty, filth, and disease, and contrasts his (and our) reaction to these conditions with the attitude of the people actually living it. “These people have voluntarily left their villages and come here in hopes of finding work,” says Malle. “They are astonished to be filmed, to be pitied, to be a source of indignation.” This collision of motives is not an invitation to complacency, but a moment of clarity. Malle’s sprawling Indian project exemplifies the heights of documentary art, unsettling our preconceptions and enhancing our moral reactions precisely by allowing us to examine them from a new angle.
Malle is hardly the first European director to be fascinated by the dizzying diversity of the American landscape, but he brings a warmth and forthrightness to his celebratory and critical investigations in his diptych, God’s Country (1985) and …And the Pursuit of Happiness (1986). Set in the farming community of Glencoe, Minnesota, God’s Country is a fond look at America’s heartland stripped of both cliché and condescension. Malle’s evident affection for Glencoe and its residents don’t belie his prodding of the town’s latent racism and homophobia. Yet with his typical generosity, Malle allows the town’s residents to speak for themselves on such matters, to reveal the rifts within their town from the perspective of the insider. Those “stars” of the film who will warm the cockles of the liberal viewer’s heart—an aged lawyer (whose son is a draft resister) who speaks candidly about the moral disgrace and national disintegration wrought by America’s involvement in Vietnam and the young woman who discusses the limits placed on sexuality, women’s advancement, and freedom of thought in small-town America—are wholly a product of their hometown. The understandings and insights they evince have been shaped by their membership within the community, not imported from the outside. Malle’s outsider, ‘neutral’ stance is thus a means to understand a situation from the perspective of those ‘inside’, without in any way abdicating the necessity of judgment. When, at the end of the film, Malle returns to Glencoe six years later to see the effects of the Reagan Revolution on the town and its inhabitants, he concludes on as ringing a note of condemnation as he ever has—and tellingly, from the mouth of a townsperson.
Commissioned by HBO on the occasion of the centenary of the Statue of Liberty, …And the Pursuit of Happiness is Malle’s portrait of contemporary immigrant life in the United States. It’s a film that retains an overriding sense of optimism and idealism even after it leaves the sunnier shores of success stories that dominate the first half—a Costa Rican-Chinese NASA astronaut, a Vietnamese M.D. in the heart of Nebraska, not to mention future Nobel Prize-winning West Indian poet Derek Walcott—to uglier tales of the immigrant experience. The film’s grittier, more challenging second half depicts “revolving door” Mexican border jumpers, a crippled political refugee from El Salvador about to be returned to the brutal state which he had fled and a tenement community where tensions between the original black inhabitants and the increasing numbers of Vietnamese flare while developers utilize the racial strife to gradually appropriate the community’s valuable land.
Through it all, Malle’s objectivity is never that of the mainstream news media, showing each “side” of the story so that they effectively cancel each other out. The penultimate section of the film takes us to the richly appointed house of yet another immigrant family who has “made it”: the Somoza clan, the dictatorial Nicaraguan dynasty ousted by the Sandinistas. (Surveying their enormous, antique-studded residence, Malle wryly notes, “They managed to bring their movables with them”). America evidently harbours less savoury immigrant success stories — and yet Malle concludes with the dictator’s nephew, struggling with how to tell his sons about the family’s past and reflecting that their life in America is far more “natural” than what they were living before. Rebirths are possible all the way up and down the social scale, and if the scars of the past should never be forgotten, Malle sees the (occasionally realized) American ideal as capable of moving the entire world in a healthier direction. “Perhaps the dictator’s nephew is becoming just another suburban American?” muses Malle; “I’ll drink to that.”
Deceptively simple and straightforward, Malle’s documentaries reveal a broad and inquisitive sensibility. Though not on the level of Marker’s poetic epiphanies, Malle’s quiet, subtly questing eye evinces a comparable fascination with the wayward profundities of the everyday, the elusive magic of the quotidian. Malle stands ‘outside,’ the better to emphasize his inclusion in the spectacles that confront him, to reveal his shaping hand even as he allows people and situations to take him where they will. It’s a delicate balance Malle strikes, occasionally wavering dangerously close to cuteness or complacency. What continually vindicates him is that his lightness is placed in the service of matters of the utmost weight, matters whose seriousness require only a skilled, subtle touch to speak eloquently for themselves.