|Malle was born in 1932 into a wealthy industrialist family in Thumeries, near to Lille in northern France. During the war, he attended a Catholic boarding school in Paris. After leaving school, he began a degree course in political science at the Institute D’Etudes Politiques in Paris, but, against his parents’ wishes, switched to a course on film studies at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques.
While still a student, he was recruited as a camera operator by underwater explorer, Jacques Cousteau. He worked as co-director on Cousteau’s celebrated documentary film, Le Monde du Silence (The Silent World) which won an Oscar and the Palme d’Or at the 1956 Academy Awards and Cannes Film Festival respectively, before working as an assistant for his hero, legendary director Robert Bresson on Un condamné à mort s'est échappé (A Man Escaped, 1956).
This experience served him well as an apprenticeship for his first feature, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) made in 1957. Not for the last time Malle showed himself an excellent judge of collaborators, working with an array of talent including novelist Rogier Nimier, cinematographer Henri Decae, up-and-coming actors Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet, and jazz genius Miles Davis. Together they took what could have been a routine film policier and turned it into a bitterly ironic, tragic film noir that was a critical and commercial success and established Malle as a young director to be reckoned with.
The film also showed, especially in the evocative scenes of her walking down the Champs Élysées at night, the potential of Jeanne Moreau to become a big film star. In his next feature, Les Amants (The Lovers, 1958), Malle confirmed that potential, casting her as the married mother who walks out on her family for a younger man. While more classical in style than its predecessor, its frank for its time sexual content, as well as its moral ambiguity, created a major scandal. In America it was banned in several states leading to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case regarding the legal definition of obscenity. The scandal helped the film become a worldwide phenomenon, turning Moreau into a major star and Malle, at the age of only 26, into a leading director.
Taken by surprise at the film’s success, Malle had a tough time recovering. He was suspicious that the success had not been deserved and for six months he went into hiding, scouting locations for a film that was never shot. When he finally settled on his next project it was a radical change of gear from what had come before.
Zazie dans le Métro was a bestseller written by experimental writer Raymond Queneau about a young girl who causes chaos when her plan to travel on the Paris underground is prevented by a strike. Many considered it unfilmable but Malle decided to take up the challenge because he believed it would give him a chance to explore cinematic language in a way he hadn’t been able to before. The result was a high-energy comedy full of wit and invention, which anticipated and greatly influenced the new trend in film style and technique, which would emerge in the ensuing decade.
One critic, who wrote favourably about Zazie dans Le Metro, despite its failure with the public, was Francois Truffaut, now an established director himself after the success of the Les Quatre cents coups (The Four Hundred Blows, 1959). Although he was not a member of the inner circle of what had now come to be known as the New Wave, Malle was of the same generation and shared much in common with the other directors, in particular a love for the great auteur directors and a desire to break with what had become routine in French cinema at the time.
After Zazie, Malle was invited by a producer, Christine Gouze-Rénal, to make a film for Brigitte Bardot. Although warned against working with her, Malle agreed to direct the project which came to be called La Vie Privée (A Very Private Affair, 1961). Filming was difficult from the start, Bardot and her co-star Marcello Mastoianni didn’t get on and there was a great deal of press intrusion and studio interference. Apart from the last section shot in Spoleto in Italy that he felt had a lyrical quality that transcended the material, Malle was unhappy with the film and frustrated by the experience of making it.
Feeling disoriented after the failure of Vie privée, Malle decided to take a sabbatical year in which he returned to documentary. He spent four months in Algeria filming events surrounding the French withdrawal from the former colony but wasn’t pleased with what he shot and didn’t end up editing it. Also that year, he filmed the Tour de France bicycle race, which resulted in a twenty minute short.
In the autumn of 1962, he returned to Paris and started writing a screenplay about a young man who commits suicide. The story, loosely based on a book by Drieu La Rochelle, who himself committed suicide in 1945, is about a disillusioned, alcoholic writer who has reached 30 and is looking for a reason to go on living. Le Feu Follet (The Fire Within, 1963), featuring a moving performance by Maurice Ronet in the lead role, was highly praised, winning the Special Jury Prize at the 1963 Venice Film Festival. Malle later described the film as one of his most personal and the first of his works that he was completely happy with.
In a pattern that was becoming characteristic of him, Malle’s next film was very different. Set during the Mexican revolution, Viva Maria (1965) teamed Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau as travelling music hall performers who become involved in the revolution. The publicity generated by the presence of two such big stars meant the shoot was constantly interrupted by an army of press corps taking photographs and looking for a story. Malle was ultimately dissatisfied with the result even though the film did well internationally. He later admitted that the reason he made the film was because he couldn’t resist the challenge, although he wouldn’t do it again.
One positive aspect of the film was the working relationship Malle developed with the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who he would frequently turn to as a collaborator during the course of his subsequent career. Their next project together was Le Voleur (The Thief, 1967) based on a semi-autobiographical book written at the turn of the century by Georges Darien, about a gentleman thief. Despite lavish production values and an engaging performance by Jean-Paul Belmondo, the film was not well received. Nevertheless Malle was very proud of the film and it has grown in stature over the years.
At this time, Malle was going through a crisis in his personal life following the break-up of his marriage to Anne-Marie Deschodt and felt unsure about the direction his career was going in. In order to get away from France for a while, he agreed to direct Alain Delon in one of three segments of a film based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe being filmed in Italy. Working with Delon proved difficult however and after completing work on Histoires extraordinaires (Spirits of the Dead, 1968), he felt more disillusioned with the film business than ever, saying at the time that he was “fed up with actors, studios, fiction and Paris.”
Then, in the autumn of 1967, he was asked by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to present in India a series of eight French Films. While there he became fascinated by the country and early the following year he returned with a small crew to shoot a documentary. They immersed themselves in the life and culture of India for six months ending up with 30 hours of material that were eventually edited down, over the course of a year, into the feature film Calcutta (1969), and a seven part TV series called L’Inde Fantome (Phantom India, 1969). The films provoked a storm of controversy in India when they were shown on the BBC for focusing too much on the poverty of the country. Others, however, were spellbound by the scope and imagery of the documentaries and many were inspired to visit the country themselves. Malle himself considered his films on India to be the most personal of his career and the films he was most proud of.
After the Indian experience, Malle embarked in the 1970s on three films with adolescent heroes and heroines, living in provincial France, two set in the recent past, one a fantasy set in the near future. For the first of these, Le Souffle au Coeur (Murmur of the Heart, 1971), the directordrew on experiences from his own childhood for a coming of age story about a 14 year old boy growing up in Dijon. Funny, high-spirited and sympathetic with an exhilarating jazz soundtrack, the film nevertheless caused controversy for it’s depiction of incest.
His next film was in its way equally controversial, but on a political level: the experience of the war and collaboration in France. Lacombe, Lucien (1974) is about a teenage boy from a peasant family, who, by a series of accidents, gets to work for the Gestapo in a small town. The film was groundbreaking because it was the first to deal with the issue of collaboration in wartime France, challenging the myth that most people resisted Nazi occupation, and provoking a great deal of debate in France on its release.
Black Moon made in 1975 was a dark surreal fantasy set in a dystopian future, filmed by the director in and around his own country estate. The free-flowing narrative, reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, centres on a confused teenage girl who witnesses a war between the sexes and finds herself involved in numerous dream-like situations. Malle later described the film “as a strange voyage to the limits of the medium.”
In the late 1970’s, in search of inspiration, Malle moved to the United States. The first film he directed there was Pretty Baby (1978), in which Brooke Shields played a 12-year-old New Orleans prostitute. Once again the newspapers of the world seized on the sensationalist aspects of the story, but, as it turned out, the film was more about atmosphere and the nature of desire, than eroticism.
Malle’s next movie, Atlantic City (1980), is often cited as his best American film. It won numerous international awards, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and a British Academy Award for Best Direction. Set in the run down seaside resort of the title, the film features a romance between a small time drug courier (Burt Lancaster) and a waitress (Susan Sarandon). Despite its downbeat subject matter the film, due in large part to outstanding performances by the two leads and a memorable screenplay by playwright John Guare, is surprisingly life affirming.
There was acclaim too for My Dinner with Andre (1982), a 90 minute film that featured nothing more than a conversation between experimental theatre director Andre Gregory and actor Wallace Shawn, but which, through the skill of Malle’s direction, managed to hold the audience’s attention throughout. Less successful, however, were screwball crime caper Crackers (1984), and Alamo Bay (1985) about a Vietnam veteran who clashes with Vietnamese immigrants who move into his hometown.
During his American years Malle continued to alternate narrative features with documentary projects. The PBS-funded Gods Country focused on the close-knit farming community of Glencoe, Minnesota. Most of the film was shot in 1979, but when it took PBS several years to finance the editing, Malle returned top Glencoe in 1985, only to find the farmers struggling in the aftermath of economic recession. A companion piece to this, was …And the Pursuit of Happiness in which Malle focused on recent immigrants to America including Cambodian refugees, a Pakistani schoolteacher, an Ethiopian cab-driver, a NASA astronaut from Costa Rica, and many others. Drawing on his own experiences as an outsider in America, Malle continued to express his empathy for people in various stages of adjustment or displacement.
Malle’s greatest triumph came with the film he made after his return to France. Au revoir, les enfants (Goodbye, Children, 1987) was an intensely moving account of what happened at the school Malle went to as a boy when the Jewish children the Catholic priest was sheltering were discovered by the Nazis. It won many awards including three French Cesars, for Best Film, Director, and Screenplay.
This was followed by the brilliant, satirical comedy Milou en mai (May Madness, 1990) about a family coming together in a country house to hear the reading of a will just as the student riots of May 1968 are raging across the country. His last two films were Damage (1992), a dark love story filmed in London, and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), a modern adaptation of Chekhov’s play set in New York.
Malle died of cancer on November 23rd, 1995, survived by his wife, the actress Candice Bergen, and their daughter Chloe. He also had a son, Manuel (born 1971), with German actress Gila von Weitershausen, and a daughter Justine (born 1974) with Canadian-born French actress Alexandra Stewart