This is the first entry in an ongoing series where I’ll be writing about films in the Criterion Collection. As you probably already know, Criterion (founded in 1984) has been in the business of releasing superior versions of classic arthouse cinema. Their film collection has been available for purchase on Laserdisc and DVD for many years, and next week they launch their first full-fledged streaming service, the Criterion Channel. I’ll be discussing movies available on the channel as well as films from their vast library on DVD and Blu-ray.
This is an exciting time to be a cinema fan! When I was growing up, it was near impossible to watch any of these movies. They rarely played on broadcast or even cable television. Some movies were on available on VHS but good luck finding them at your local video rental store whose stock rarely extended beyond mainstream popcorn movies. Sure, you could order movies from the Suncoast in the mall, but you had to know exactly what you were looking for. There was no way to browse classic cinema in the pre-Internet years. The best way to discover any film that was not playing at the multiplex was to buy one of those huge ‘complete movies available on video’ guides. Then you could read brief synopses of movies that sounded amazing and you’d run to Suncoast with your list of titles and order a couple of them sight unseen (upon reflection, I may have been the only kid in my small town to do this but whatever gets your rocks off, right?). But beginning next week on April 8, anyone with a smart T.V. can peruse Criterion’s extensive collection of classic movies! I’ve been counting down the days until launch.
Louis Malle’s 1971 film Murmur of the Heart is a coming-of-age tale starring Benoît Ferreux as Laurent Chevalier, a 14 year old boy navigating adolescence in France of 1954. Benoît excels in the title role, veering from ‘wide-eyed youth’ to ‘petulant brat’ to ‘intelligent young man’ with a natural ease (ofttimes these transformations happen within a single scene, making the acting performance even more impressive). The female lead is Laurent’s mother Clara (played by the stunning Lea Massari), whose relationship with her son both centers and drives the story. And what a story it is! This is a far cry from The Wonder Years. Director Louis Malle said this film was loosely based on the experiences he had growing up in France in the 1940’s. With ONE BIG EXCEPTION (which I will get to later), this type of material has been done before. What causes this film to rise to the top is Malle’s exceptional wit and the total immersion into the life of the main character.
Does anyone remember/still read the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books? At the bottom of most pages, you had the opportunity to decide what the main character (YOU) did next and it affected the course of the story. Sometimes you followed a path to a happy ending but usually, you ended up in peril: being imprisoned on a planet of monkeys or a life sentence in a foreign prison or else you just got shot or fell off a cliff or some other kind of tragic death. Watching Murmur of the Heart is watching teenaged Laurent in his very own ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book. Temptation lurks everywhere and there are so many possible branches to take off the main path. I don’t want to say that he makes the wrong choices throughout the film because when all is said and done, he gets a happy ending…BUT I will say that his choices are certainly careless and unusual.
He’s an extremely intelligent boy who is at the top of his class at school, yet he is still a typical, impulsive adolescent at heart. He loves jazz records and his cat and his mother (more on this in a bit, and be ready because it’s a doozy). He idolizes his older brothers, who take him under their wing while tormenting him at the same time. His relationship with his father is almost nonexistent – he flat-out admits that he doesn’t love his father and their interaction is very dry and businesslike. He sneaks cigarettes with his schoolmates and hassles his family’s maid. He is eager to sexually experiment with girls, which he attempts with a sort of fumbling and brutish gusto.
Despite all of the attention that is usually given to this movie’s ‘shocking’ ending, most of this film is full of events that are relatable to anyone. There’s a lighthearted tint to the scenes with just a slight undercurrent of menace, since we can sense that Laurent’s unspoken inner turmoil is slowly rising to a boil. Sex is a MAJOR theme in this story. And poor Laurent is eager to get it on with almost any girl who is available to him, starting with a meeting with a prostitute that his brothers arrange for him. Later there are some near misses with girls closer to his own age, and by the end of the film he’s the Casanova of the sanatorium. Watching him go through these early sexual explorations can be unnerving because it evokes memories of our own experiences at that age. And any good coming-of-age tale HAS to make us feel at least a little uncomfortable and nostalgic or else it’s simply failed as a movie.
The story takes a swerve halfway through when Laurent is diagnosed with a heart condition, requiring him to be admitted to a sanatorium for a period of time. Mom goes with him (but of course!), and the second half of the film delves deeper into their unusual mother/son relationship. Everyone at the medical facility seems to be enamored by Clara (she even flirts with a boy at the hospital who is close to her son’s age) which in turn enrages Laurent, because he wants her for himself. She eventually breaks things off with her possessive boyfriend, which leads to the grand finale of the picture.
One night after a huge Bastille Day celebration at the sanatorium (they have parties at these places? Sign me up!), Laurent escorts his drunken mother back to their room, where he tucks her into bed and then has sex with her. YES, YOU HEARD THAT RIGHT. The Oedipus complex is a famous psychoanalytic theory that only rarely comes to pass in a physical, sexual form but HERE YA GO, this is one of those rare times. The first time I watched this movie, I had read about it beforehand and knew this incest thing was coming. But even if I hadn’t already known about the ending, I imagine that I’d have seen it coming. Laurent and his mother spend the entire film basically romancing each other. Their entire mother/son dynamic is askew. She thinks nothing of walking into the bathroom while he’s in the tub. He secretly dresses in her clothes and wears her makeup. She discusses her extramarital affair with him. He sees her with her boyfriend and reacts by ripping up her lingerie and then heads to his bedroom to jerk off. They are constantly embracing as if they were lovers.
The sex between them at the end of the film is both horrifying and inevitable. I always get a sense of dread as this scene approaches and while it is disturbing, it also somehow manages to be the most inoffensive depiction of incest to ever grace the big screen. Afterwards, Clara gently tells her son that they will look back ‘tenderly’ on what just happened but it can never be repeated. Then Mom falls asleep while Laurent sneaks off to a female friend’s room to have some more sex (once you wind this boy up, he cannot be stopped).
The final scene of the film is the entire family eating breakfast together the next morning, everyone heartily laughing when Laurent gets caught trying to sneak back into his room. It’s a warm, family moment. I felt that all of the characters were really going to be alright now, despite (or perhaps aided by) recent circumstances. How Louis Malle managed to pull off a feel-good incest pic is beyond me but somehow he does it and THAT is why I love this movie. There’s nothing quite like the emotions you feel when it’s over.
This is probably my favorite film about adolescence and growing up. It’s a fun, provocative viewing experience just PLEASE do not watch it with your mother.
OTHER THINGS I THOUGHT ABOUT WHILE WATCHING THIS MOVIE:
-The cinematography (by Ricardo Aronovich) is lush and expressive. There’s nothing arty and abstract going on, it’s all pretty straightforward, which suits this story perfectly. There is a timelessness to the cinematography that made me nostalgic for my own youth, despite my teenage experience being quite different from the one that we see in the story. There’s something warm and inviting about this film, no matter the uncomfortable rabbit holes it goes down.
-The bordello scene has Perez Prado’s ‘Mambo #5’ playing in the background (which got stuck in my head all through the rest of the day). Say what you will about the Lou Bega version, but the original is a snappy earworm.
-There’s a tense scene involving Father Henri (one of the school teachers) getting uncomfortably close to Laurent, putting his hand around the boy’s thigh to ‘marvel at how much he’s grown’. Laurent manages to squirm out of the situation before it goes any further. The ‘deviant priest’ character is a cliché in movies like this, however, I don’t think it was a cliché yet in 1971. Sadly, it’s a cliché in real life too.
-There’s a very unexpected couple of seconds of teenaged Benoît Ferreux getting naked during a hosedown by a nurse in the sanatorium’s shower room. I guess that we should just file this under ‘If You’re Watching European Art Films From the 1970’s, Be Prepared to Feel Like You’ve Just Broken A Law at Any Given Moment’.
-The 50th anniversary of the film’s release is approaching soon. I’m normally not one for sequels but I’d absolutely love to see one in this case. Laurent is in his 60’s, visiting his mother for Thanksgiving and confronting her about the sex act that took place between them years ago. It could be one of those stories with lots of pensive looks and emotional outbursts and tears. Both of the actors are still alive (although Louis Malle has passed on), let’s get a petition going and make this happen! Alas, we will get ten more superhero movies at the Multiplex instead. It’s not an easy life when you’re into art films.
Murmur of the Heart is available on DVD. The Criterion Channel launches on Monday, April 8. I’m so excited!