Young Laurent Chevalier, hero of Louis Malle’s sunnily sensual reissued “Murmur of the Heart” (opening Friday at the Music Hall) has a wide, droll mouth that curls up at the ends like a Picasso line drawing and ears almost like a faun’s. Something about that look, combined with his skinny skittishness, lets us tolerate 14-year-old Laurent even when he behaves like a consummate brat; when, for example, in an agony of jealousy he deliberately drops a bottle of milk for their aging family maid to clean up.
Also, it’s 1954. Horrific manners are the mark of the lordly young Frenchman, these three particularly; sons of a well-off Dijon gynecologist and his free-spirited Italian wife. Their world would change soon enough; it is already changing: the French are losing at Dien Bien Phu; in a little more than a decade, kids this age from the bourgeoisie would became radicalized.
Writer-director Malle, who wrote the film in one firestorm week in the spring of 1970 and finished it the following year, conjures up that family, that time, that insular smugness with a notable mixture of affection and observation. It’s his family, something we recognize even more clearly after “Au Revoir Les Enfants.”
Malle, too, had the two older brothers, the love for Charlie Parker and Jelly Roll Morton, the heart murmur and the summer at the spa that his young Laurent shares. Even the hilarious game of spinach tennis is from memory. But the funny, earthy, faintly unhappy Italian mother, Clara, a wild bird untamed by her 20 years stifled in the bosom of the French bourgeoisie, is Malle’s creation.
She has been given indelible life by Lea Massari, an apricot-colored goddess whose charm lies in her exuberance, her physicality, her very un -Frenchness, and in an utterly disarming sprinkling of freckles. Clara, the daughter of a radical political exile, was a 16-year-old visitor to France when Charles Chevalier (Daniel Gelin) became her first lover and then her husband, to the consternation of his moneyed parents.
Of their three sons, Laurent (Benoit Ferreux), the youngest, is her favorite. She adores and babies him; (somehow) he sees her spirit for what it is. His older brothers, Marc (Marc Winocourt) and Thomas (Fabien Ferreux, Benoit’s own brother) have fallen into the habit of putting her down, telling her that she couldn’t even pass their exams.
When scarlet fever leaves Laurent with a heart murmur, Clara goes with him to a health spa up in the mountains. The two are like one closed fist against the young prigs and Royalists Laurent encounters, these children of the stuffy, social French families who populate the spa. Clara, by being herself--playing her first game of tennis in sneakers and street clothes--seems marvelous to these 16- and 17-year-olds.
It’s at the spa, triggered by an evening of Bastille Day celebration, that the scene that made the film a cause celebre occurs. It’s a subdued, nuzzling moment between boy-child and intensely affectionate mother, when all his impacted jealousy, fascination, adoration and curiousity carry Laurent across the line into incest.
Eighteen years ago, some of us were so busy priding ourselves on being shockproof that we didn’t really think to question Malle further: to wonder at how firmly he denied the moment its reverberations--to both parties. If this was incest, tasteful, “open,” utterly without consequence, then what was all the fuss about? Actually, what today’s audiences may wonder is what the movie is about if this moment, toward which the film is so insistently pointed, is so without effect.
From today’s vantage point, “Murmur of the Heart’s” strongest memory becomes its climate: political, familial, full of warmth, family jokes and indulged bad manners, brotherly acts of rivalry and support. This may be just what Malle was aiming for: in his words, “a contemporary comedy of French bourgeois education.” (The film is MPAA-rated R.) What we see now is elegant detail, sharp observation, perfect performances (especially by Benoit Ferreux and the sublime Massari). And a possibly far-reaching moment that becomes simply one of those enigmatic Gallic shrugs.
Could it really be as weightless as all that? Perhaps. Possibly. One wonders.
‘MURMUR OF THE HEART’
An Orion Classics Release of a Co-production of Nouvelles Editions de Films; Marianne Productions (Paris), Vides Cinematographica (Rome), Franz Seitz Filmproduktion (Munich). Producers Vincent Malle, Claude Nedjar. Director, writer Louis Malle. Camera Richardo Aronovich. Costumes Ghislain Uhry. Music Charlie Parker, Sidney Bechet, Gaston Freche and Henri Renaud. Editor Suzanne Baron. Art direction Jean-Jacques Caziot, Philippe Turlure. Sound Jean-Claude Laureux, Michel Vionnet. With Lea Massari, Benoit Ferreux, Daniel Gelin, Marc Winocourt, Fabien Ferreux, Michel Lonsdale, Gila Von Weitershausen, Jacqueline Chauveau, Corinne Kersten.
MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).
Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes.