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.