Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Crimes and Whispers: Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart

The French may have a word for it, but I’m not quite sure what it is.  Sophisticates among us know there’s a Gallic tradition (in cinema, at least) of an older woman initiating a very young man into sexuality. Mike Nichols actually called upon this tradition in directing Dustin Hoffman in 1967’s The Graduate. Nichols advised Hoffman to keep in mind that in sleeping with his father’s business partner’s wife, Benjamin Braddock was “having an affair that’s almost incestuous.” (Nichols’ satiric point was that Benjamin -- in thrall to a woman close to his mother in age and style -- is still in bed with his parents’ generation, in more ways than one.)

Benjamin’s fling with Mrs. Robinson may approach incest, but in a French film released four years later, the mother/son incest is the real thing. The film is Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart, and (though the movie was restricted to those over 18 even in France) the result is not as salacious as it may sound. I’d always heard that Malle’s movie is semi-autobiographical, which certainly had me worried. Apparently, though, the aspects of Murmur of the Heart that reflect Malle’s own experience are the scenes in which an almost fifteen-year-old boy who loves sexy novels and American jazz is teased unmercifully by two older brothers as he works his way through puberty. (In the film, the brothers take young Laurent to a brothel, and then gleefully burst in on him as he lies in flagrante on top of a motherly hooker).

It's a curious household. The father, a successful gynecologist, is handsome and stern, with a special disdain for his hapless youngest son. The much younger mother – an Italian who was born into poverty – is something of an exhibitionist and something of a rebel. She’s been having an affair with a man who drives a flashy sportscar, and she’s an object of fascination for everyone around her, including the smitten Laurent, with whom she seems to have a specially tender bond.

Circumstances conspire to bring mother and son to a fancy hotel connected with a health spa. Laurent (bursting with hormonal excitement) tries hard to impress himself upon jeunes filles his own age, including one who wears her blonde hair in two girlish ponytails,  but this doesn’t work out. His yen for his sexy mom crystalizes when she goes off for a tryst with her lover: the film’s most whimsical and poignant moment comes as, in her absence, he puts on her dressing gown and lovingly arranges her undies, garter belt, and stockings on his bed, as though she herself were there to wear them.

The act of incest, when it comes, is born out of the mother’s unhappiness: she and her lover have parted because she won’t permanently leave her family for him. Reaching out to her sympathetic son as they cuddle together on her bed, she presents the idea as a special one-time event that will be a beautiful and secret memory between them. Mercifully, we don’t see the act itself (hooray for discretion!) but only watch Laurent, in the aftermath, searching the hotel for a willing girl his own age.

The film ends with the reunited family chuckling happily over the evidence that young Laurent has been out tomcatting,  but I believe that cheerful note is a false one. Instead I think Malle means us to see trouble ahead for both mother and son, though he leaves it to us to conjure up a sequel. After, of course, we light up a Gauloise and lift our shoulders in a classic French shrug.   .

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