Sunday, December 21, 2014

Murmur of the Heart

Serious Spoilers

Louis Malle's autobiographical 1971 drama MURMUR OF THE HEART in some ways quite surprisingly, curiously resembles American "youth films" and TV sitcoms of the late 70s/early 80s, especially the final scene when a teenager returns to his hotel room to find his parents and brothers waiting for him after his illicit evening with a girl down the hall.  Instead of being scolded, the boy gradually joins everyone as they burst into laughter. The End.

It's hard to know how to react.  Laugh off the potential seriousness of this scenario?  Find the whole affair a bit of lighthearted whimsy? I haven't even explained that earlier that same evening 15 year old Laurent (Benoit Ferreux) shared his mother Clara's (Lea Massari) bed in that way. With this information you may conclude that you're in for a typically brazen, Un-PC bit of early 70s, European cinema. Attitudes far more open about sexuality than what might've been seen in a Hollywood feature. It is certainly true that a film like this is unlikely to be produced today, much like the same year's PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, an American film (but directed by a Frenchman) would not be. The scandalous plot will seem irresponsible and immoral to many viewers.

Naturally, Malle has insisted that the episode of incest is pure fiction, unlike the remainder of his screenplay, a bittersweet coming of age drama based on his formative years in France. Laurent shares his creator's love for Charlie Parker and Proust and the Tour de France.  Like his protagonist, Malle had two randy older brothers who brought him to a lady of the evening for his First Time. The film's title derives from the director's cardiac diagnosis when he was around Laurent's age.

Loving Clara acts more like a friend to her teenagers than a mother. She chases them around and shares laughter in their juvenile behavior, as when they repeatedly harass (but gently, jokingly) their maid. She is much younger than her husband Charles (Daniel Gelin), a staid sort of fellow who barely puts down his newspaper at dinner and is not prone to affection to her or the sons.  It is unsurprising that Clara has a lover, something discovered by Laurent while he and his mother are at a hotel while he recuperates from scarlet fever. The boy begins to spy on his mother in the bath as he reconciles his increasing hormonal urges.

While elements of the story indeed play like an 80s teens-on-the-make comedy (brothers repeatedly trying to score, pranks, parents who care more about expensive artifacts than their children, etc.), you of course already know the answer to the "chicken or the egg" inquiry. Long before THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN or even RISKY BUSINESS, Malle created this lovingly orchestrated nostalgia that never seems dishonest or phony.  His openness and playful, light approach is a nice alternative to other dramas attempting to tackle this very tricky subject. Bertolucci's LUNA was a fascinating but overwrought and sometimes bombastic piece.  David O. Russell's SPANKING THE MONKEY was mostly successful at the awkward dance that would come before and after the forbidden union of mother and son, though its ending seems cribbed from FIVE EASY PIECES.  I cannot recall seeing a father/daughter story of this nature, and I would not hold my breath.

The incest plotline, very discreetly handled, will keep many from seeing MURMUR OF THE HEART.  I think this is too bad, as his film is a jewel, a sweet memory that recalls youth without a middle aged jadedness. Malle knows exactly when to cut from a scene, before it wears out its welcome or becomes too silly. The brothers' art forgery/switched painting joke on their father is a good example. Another involves an uncomfortable scene between Laurent and the priest at his school. That Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach cite the film as influential also doesn't hurt one bit.
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