By the time that Jeanne Moreau cut the cake for his twenty-fifth birthday on the set of Elevator to the Gallows, Louis Malle had already been joint winner of an Oscar for his work on Jacques Cousteau’s documentary The Silent World. In view of this astonishing success, it is chilling to read the note that the 20-year-old Malle had written on Christmas Day 1952: “Lord Satan, I give you my soul and promise to be your loyal servant if you give me genius, love and cinematographic success in the next five years.” Malle’s transaction with the devil revealed something important about his relationship with his own conservative, Catholic bourgeois family and particularly with his mother. Superficially he reacted against this background. He became a filmmaker instead of going to the École Polytechnique and joining the family business, he traveled constantly, he had three children by three different women and in his films he constantly mocked the world into which he had been born.

Yet Malle’s mockery of provincial conservatism never meant that he entirely renounced its values–as the hero of his 1971 tale of incest, Murmur of the Heart, remarks, “Blasphemy has no thrill for those who have ceased to believe.” Malle remained on good terms with his family, especially his long-suffering mother. Indeed, good terms with his family were the basis of Malle’s precocious success, since the wealth that he derived from being a member of the Béghin sugar dynasty enabled him to found his own production company.

Pierre Billard’s new biography, Le rebelle solitaire, perceptively links Malle’s films to his background and life. It fills an important gap because the most important work previously published on Malle–Philip French’s collection of interviews published under the title Malle on Malle (1993)–was rather discreet about Malle’s private life (French never suggested that Malle’s relations with Moreau, Brigitte Bardot and Susan Sarandon, among other leading ladies, might have had a nonprofessional dimension). Billard brings out Malle’s charm but also hints at his less likable features; at one point, for example, the director insisted that script girls working on his films should wear blouses with extra big pockets so they could carry his tobacco and pipes for him.

Most of all, Billard puts Malle into a political context that enriches our understanding of the films. This is the area French probed least deeply, perhaps assuming that Malle shared the standard beliefs of the Anglo-Saxon liberal left. In fact, Malle grew up on the right. His mother loathed every manifestation of the French left, from the Popular Front government of 1936 to the election of François Mitterrand as president of the republic in 1981. Louis Malle himself was influenced by associations with two wartime collaborationists. When working with Jacques Cousteau in the early 1950s, he met Cousteau’s rabidly anti-Semitic brother Pierre-Antoine, who had narrowly escaped execution after liberation. In 1963 Malle directed The Fire Within, based on a novel by another Nazi sympathizer, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, who had committed suicide in 1945.

Malle’s own politics are easiest to define in negative terms. Engagement was not forced on him by circumstances–he was too young to be forced to choose between resistance to the Nazi occupation and Pétainism, while a minor heart complaint saved him from being called up during France’s colonial wars (one of his cousins died at Dien Bien Phu). Malle apparently disliked colonialism (his film on India suggested that he did not like postcolonial native elites much either), but he refused to sign the “Manifesto of 121,” supporting the right to disobedience during the Algerian war, apparently for fear of annoying his family. He became famous for “leading” a walkout by members of the jury at the Cannes film festival in May 1968, but his desire to get back to Paris on this occasion was influenced more by curiosity than political commitment. He regarded the solemn debates of the Etats Généraux du Cinéma about art in the service of revolution with amused indifference. A characteristically cynical Malle joke in the early 1970s was to use a group of earnest young Maoists as extras in one of his films; the Maoists thought they were raising money for the cause, but Malle paid them below the union rate.

Malle’s political enthusiasms were reserved for matters outside France, and outside a conventional left/right spectrum. He was particularly concerned about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and his only explicit political engagement came when he supported the environmentalist René Dumont in the 1974 presidential election.

Probably the single individual who was closest to Malle’s political outlook was Roger Nimier–the novelist who wrote the screenplay for Elevator to the Gallows. Nimier cultivated an image of detached dandyism as a deliberate riposte to the political earnestness of Sartre and his associates. In particular, Nimier rejected the claims of the resistance to have a monopoly of moral virtue–significantly, both Malle (born in 1932) and Nimier (born in 1925) regarded resistance leaders as representatives of the “older generation.”

Malle’s portrayal of the occupation in Lacombe Lucien (1974) is a deliberate attempt to break with the resistance pieties that had formerly dominated discussion of the occupation. The film feels almost like a deliberate inversion of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956), a film on which Malle had briefly worked as a young man. Bresson’s film is spare, quiet and shot in black and white. Malle’s film is accompanied by a lively jazz soundtrack and shot in color. In Bresson’s film a young boy who had fought with the Germans is redeemed and rescued by a resistance hero; in Malle’s film, a young boy joins pro-German forces after being rejected by the resistance. Most of all, Bresson’s film is intensely Christian. Malle’s film has no hero and, perhaps, no real villain either. It is, like all of Malle’s films, self-consciously blasphemous. All the usual assumptions about the occupation are turned on their head. The resistance leader is a bad-tempered and self-important middle-aged primary school teacher. By contrast, the man who initiates Lucien into the ways of collaboration (a traitor, fascist, coward and wastrel) is presented as a man of seductive charm; he bears a more than passing resemblance to Malle’s rebellious elder brother.

One might argue, as no doubt many earnest left-wingers in the early 1970s did, that the emphasis on adolescent rebellion that pervades so many of Malle’s films has conservative implications. First such an emphasis drains ordinary political distinctions of their significance because almost all politics is treated as an absurd manifestation of the adult world. In Murmur of the Heart (1971), two teenage boys mock their stolid provincial father for his political beliefs. When he talks of Mendès-France as a leader who will save France, they recite a long list of other providential men in whom parts of the French bourgeoisie have invested their faith before finishing with the words, “Why not Maréchal Pétain?” No doubt the boys would have laughed at their father even more if he had tried to explain the rather large difference between Mendès-France, a Jew who escaped a Vichy prison to join the Free French, and Pétain, head of the Vichy state.

Besides, the adolescent rebellion of Malle’s films is the opposite of political revolution. Adult rules are suspended during brief periods of fugue or carnival, but they are never abolished. The bourgeois adolescent rebels of Malle’s films are destined to be absorbed into the adult world (as in Murmur of the Heart or Au Revoir les Enfants); the proletarian rebels of Lacombe Lucien or Elevator to the Gallows are destined to be destroyed by the adult world. The political futility of adolescent rebellion is particularly striking in his 1990 film May Fools because the adolescents in this case are actually middle-aged. Excited by the student demonstrations of 1968 in Paris, a bourgeois family in a country house have sex, smoke dope and discuss absurd political utopias (in a characteristic Malle inversion, the only “adult” in this film is a little girl). When they believe that a real revolution is imminent, however, they are terrified, and the film ends with them queuing up to shake the hand of a policeman who will protect their property and restore order.

Billard’s biography is also good on the relations between Malle and other filmmakers of his generation. Malle got a raw deal out of the New Wave. Unlike his contemporaries, he did not benefit much from the sudden interest in young filmmakers during the late 1950s, because his career was already launched; however, his subsequent reputation has suffered from the perception that he was somehow less important than Godard or Truffaut. In fact, if you go through Malle’s films individually, his originality shines out. (Pauline Kael was one of the few critics who fully appreciated Malle’s genius.) The opening shots of Elevator to the Gallows, filmed with a camera in a baby’s pram being pushed down the Champs Elysées and lit only by the light coming from shop windows, are as arresting as the opening shots of Godard’s Breathless, though it’s the Godard film that pops up on every film studies syllabus. The soundtrack of Elevator to the Gallows alone, recorded by Miles Davis in a single jam session, ought to be enough to secure any director his place in film history. The Lovers (1958) treated sex scenes with a directness that can still be disconcerting; the film’s release in America led to a case that ended in the Supreme Court. Malle’s documentary on India provoked such outrage that the BBC was banned from the country for several years. Though his contemporaries were all fascinated by American cinema, Malle was the only French director of his generation who actually worked in the United States–and established himself well enough to be seriously considered as a candidate to make Godfather III.

Why, then, did Malle get so little credit? Part of the answer no doubt lies in the self-consciousness of the New Wave. The real subject of its signature films was filmmaking itself (literally so in the case of Truffaut’s Day for Night). But unlike Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol, Malle never worked on Cahiers du Cinéma, the flagship magazine of the French New Wave. He was uninterested in film theory and dropped out of the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques partly to get away from it. Malle had strong ideas about literature (especially Proust), philosophy (especially Nietzsche), the Third World (especially India), food (especially truffles), sports (especially cycling) and sex (of almost any kind), but he did not have any set of general principles about filmmaking. This unselfconscious approach to filmmaking made him appear philistine and middlebrow to many of his contemporaries. The fact that his films were neat and carefully polished hid their innovative qualities at a time when other filmmakers put such qualities in the shop window. In architectural terms, Malle was Edwin Lutyens to Godard’s Richard Rogers.

Malle himself, like some of his admirers, was disappointed by the later part of his career. Like many brilliant young men, he found growing old difficult; Truffaut, who died in 1984, did not face the same problems, while Godard and Chabrol adjusted well to their roles as grand old men. Malle, once a man of enormous physical vigor, was ill for the last few years of his life. By the time he was 60, he felt unable to coach Juliette Binoche during sex scenes (a duty that he had taken very seriously with his previous leading ladies).

Malle’s later films have sometimes been seen as renunciations of his earlier career. Damage (1992), for example, might be read as a critique of Malle’s earlier films because it portrays sex as a destructive force, and because its treatment of incest makes it seem like an atonement for Murmur of the Heart. The sense of revisiting earlier films is even more pronounced in Au Revoir les Enfants (1987), which returns to 1944, the year in which Lacombe Lucien had been set. The film recounts an incident that happened in Malle’s own school when two Jewish children who had been hidden there were captured by the Gestapo. Malle said this episode had overshadowed his whole life and helped to turn him into a rebel. Perhaps, in some ways, the film also marks the end of that rebellion. Unlike Lacombe Lucien, Au Revoir les Enfants is not a shocking subversion of received wisdom about the occupation. It was shot in deliberately restrained hues (Malle told the costume designer that he wanted no red except on the lipstick of the main character’s mother). It is a worthy, almost pious, film in which there is a clear sense of right and wrong and, most surprising in view of Malle’s earlier films, the figure most identified with right is a priest and teacher.

However, Billard’s biography shows that it is too simple to interpret Au Revoir les Enfants and Damage just as works of repentance or renunciation. Unlike so many French intellectuals of his generation, Malle could not renounce his youth, because he had never espoused an explicit political or artistic program. His films always hinted at the possibility of multiple interpretations. The Lovers ends just after the heroine has experienced a moment of doubt about the new life on which she has entered; Murmur of the Heart presents a boy having sex with his mother as a lighthearted comedy with a happy ending, but Malle’s first draft of the script suggested a more conventionally tragic, and much less shocking, ending in which the boy commits suicide.

When Philip French asked Malle what united his films, Malle said simply, “Me.” More than the works of those who are conventionally identified as “auteurs,” Malle’s films are linked by his own tastes, instincts and emotions rather than by a coherent set of ideas. A biography of Malle probably sheds more light on his films than any number of works rooted in film theory. It will also make readers keen to return to the films themselves.