Thursday, June 17, 2010

#328: Murmur of the Heart

(Louis Malle, 1972)

With the exception of Chinatown, Murmur of the Heart is probably the most famous movie about incest (am I missing some other movie?). Like that classic, this Louis Malle film isn't really about incest, but instead about the rumblings of youth and the messy journey that brings boys into their place among men. This is played out as class satire and a sort of reverse embrace of French culture, represented by the French upper-middle-class family that has an Italian matriarch and son/protagonist obsessed with American jazz.

Lea Massari, who memorably played the missing girl of Antonioni's masterpiece, L'avventura, plays the mother here, and she is spectacular. Her character is so inappropriate with her sons well before any hint of actual impropriety that it becomes difficult to sympathize with her, but she is obviously oblivious to her line-crossing that eventually all you can see is her feeling of helpless sexuality. Massari is so beautiful that her casting is half the battle here, but her reserved emotional conflict with regards to her family goes the rest of the way. When her son, so desperate to lose his virginity, to conquer a woman, to feel like he has gained some semblance of power in the world, finally sees the damage that can be inflicted upon the victims of such conquests, it is a mutually beneficial encounter that feels tenderly sad, more melancholy than tragedy. And, of course, instead of retracting from the power of this realization, the young protagonist is instead invigorated by it, immediately moving on to more conventional encounters.

The second half of the film is undoubtedly uncomfortable, but still certainly compelling, and while Malle has made better films, this is well worth seeing, if not for the compelling story and artful direction, then for the excellent performances from Massari and Benoit Ferreux. As I watch more and more films from Malle, it becomes clear that his catalog is stacked well beyond his masterpieces.

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