Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A Louis Malle double feature

Two of Louis Malle's early features, from that good box set [Vol 1] which also includes LES AMANTS and ZAZIE DANS LE METRO. Malle (who died in 1995 aged 63) began filming in the mid '50s with underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, their first documentary being the well-received LE MONDE DU SILENCE in '56.

LIFT TO THE SCAFFOLD – (or ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS to give it it’s American title). Louis Malle’s 1958 thriller ASCENSEUR POUR L'ÉCHAFAUD is still a fascinating experience as the plot spirals off in different directions. We have Jeanne Moreau endlessly wandering around Paris by night and in the rain looking for her missing lover (Maurice Ronet) who was supposed to kill her wealthy industrialist husband and join her, but he get trapped in the lift/elevator when the power is turned off, after the murder which he fakes to look like suicide. Can he escape? Meanwhile, his car is stolen by a teenage delinquent and his girl, who speed off and get involved with a German couple. We wonder why we are spending so much time with them, but this too leads to murder as the stories converge …. The spare Miles Davis soundtrack is cool beyond belief and Paris in 1958 looks the place to be. For me Malle (like Demy) is the most interesting of the New Wave directors [he was just 25 when directing this] and it is still a fascinating movie with Moreau and Ronet in their early prime. Marvellous black and white photography too by Henri Decae.

LE FEU FOLLET (THE FIRE WITHIN). This made such a big impression on me when I saw it aged 18 in 1964 that I did not need to see it again until now. It is surely Malle's most outstanding work, adapted from the Drieu La Rochelle story, with an Erik Satie soundtrack (so appropriate) and those luminous images by Ghislain Cloquet and with an astounding performance by Maurice Ronet. This and Bogarde's role in THE SERVANT are surely the outstanding performances of 1963. Ronet captures every facet as Alain Leroy, a playboy drying out at a private clinic who really finds nothing to live for once he is "cured". His alcoholic playboy is also a terminally depressed and finds life hollow and meaningless. Even the visiting friend of his ex-wife, whom he sleeps with and who writes him a cheque, cannot rouse him. He likes the routine at the clinic as we observe him in his room - notice the picture of Marilyn Monroe (a supposed recent suicide) and other newspaper features on death clipped to the wall... and the date scrawled on the mirror - the next day's date.

He decides on a whim to return to his old haunts in Paris to see if any of his old friends can be of any help in giving him a reason to go on living. Paris again in the early 60s looks marvellous as we linger at the Cafe Flore and the Brasserie Lipp. But Alain seems a shadow of his former jolly self to the barman and hotel staff he used to know. His best friend has settled into domesticity with a wife and child and is writing a book, he meets Jeanne Moreau, and Alexandra Stewart and her high society friends, and he starts drinking again. There is also that group of homosexuals who notice Alain and comment on how he has changed as one comments that a friend of theirs had been in love with him. It sounds depressing but it isn't really, and is a mesmerising film about suicide as a rational way out for a hollow man who is all used up and cannot see any point in continuing.... it is inevitable when back at his room to see him pack up his belongings and his life.

Malle went on to lots more varied films from the jollity of VIVA MARIA and the dramatic LACOMBE LUCIEN to those American classics like ATLANTIC CITY - LIFT TO THE SCAFFOLD is a young man's film exploring what cinema can do, but LE FEU FOLLET remains a personal favourite that simply endures. A key '60s film too, comparable to THE SERVANT or BLOW-UP or BELLE DE JOUR.

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