Louis Malle in Calcutta

· Film

In 1968 Louis Malle came to Calcutta and was introduced to my father by the film maker Satyajit Ray. I remember Malle then sporting a beard. I was made his guide as he wanted to roam the streets of Calcutta .You know …just be with him and take him around. He traveled to India without any real specific goal in mind, `just to experience the country and get something of it down on film’.

We were standing on the curb of a street as a communist procession moved by. All of a sudden Malle rushed, seized a red flag and started walking. I was bewildered. I stood there for a time not responding. As a young lad I did not know what to do. Suddenly I realized that he may get lost and I was meant to be his guide. I joined the procession, this being my first……That is Louis Malle for you. Ultimately he collected enough footage on Calcutta to make it into a documentary. The documentary was latter banned in India.

Louis Malle comes from a rare breed of French film director who achieved a reputation as a great director not just in his native France but internationally, and was not afraid to embrace a wide range of subjects, some notoriously controversial. Malle is sometimes incorrectly associated with the nouvelle vague – his work does not fit in or correspond to the auteurist theories that apply to the work of Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, and others, and he had nothing whatsoever to do with Cahiers du cinema. Nonetheless, his film Zazie dans le métro (“Zazie in the Metro,” 1960, an adaptation of the Raymond Queneau novel) did inspire Truffaut to write an enthusiastic letter to Malle.

Malle was born in 1932 in Thumeries, near to Lille in northern France, into a comfortable bourgeois family which had made a fortune in sugar production dating back to the Napoleonic wars. In 1940, at the age of 12, he attended a Catholic boarding school near Paris (with his three brothers), a school which was sheltering Jewish pupils. The tragic events of this time are documented in Malle’s poignant 1987 film, Au Revoir les Enfants.

After the war, Malle began a degree course in political science at the Institut d’études politiques in Paris but, against his parents’ wishes, switched to a course on film studies at the Institut des Hautes ètudes Cinématographiques. Almost immediately after that, he was recruited as a camera operator for the famous underwater explorer, Jacques-Yves Cousteau. He worked as co-director on Costeau’s celebrated documentary film, Le Monde du silence in 1956.
Cousteau soon promoted him to be co-director of “Le Monde du silence” (1956) (“The Silent World”). Years later, Cousteau called Malle the best underwater cameraman he ever had. Malle’s third film, “Les Amants” (1958) (“The Lovers”), starring Jeanne Moreau, broke taboos against on screen eroticism. In 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the obscenity conviction of an Ohio theater that had exhibited “Les Amants.” He also made films on the other side of the Atlantic, starting with “Pretty Baby” (1978), the film that made Brooke Shields an international superstar. The actress who played a supporting role in that film was given a starring role in Malle’s next American film, “Atlantic City” (1980). That promising actress was Susan Sarandon.

In one of his later French films, “Au revoir les enfants” (1987), Malle was able to find catharsis for an experience that had haunted him since the German occupation of France in World War II. At age 12, he was sent to a Catholic boarding school near Paris that was a refuge for several Jewish students, one of them was Malle’s rival for academic honors and his friend. A kitchen worker at the school with a grudge became an informant. The priest who was the principal was arrested and the Jewish students were sent off to concentration camps.

In his final film, “Vanya on 42nd Street” (1994), Malle again penetrated the veil between life and art as theater people rehearse Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” In that film, Malle worked again with theater director Andre Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn, the conversationalists of “My Dinner with Andre” (1981).

Malle was married to the actree Candice Bergen. He succumbed to lymphoma in 1995.

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