03 February, 2009
Louis Malle was a French film director, working in both French and English.
Malle was born into a wealthy industrialist family in Thumeries, Nord, France. He initially studied political science at the Sorbonne before turning to film studies at IDHEC instead.
He worked as the co-director and cameraman to Jacques Cousteau on the Oscar and Palme d'Or-winning (at the 1956 Academy Awards and Cannes Film Festival respectively) documentary The Silent World (1956) and assisted Robert Bresson on A Man Escaped (French title: Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut, 1956) before making his first feature, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (originally released in the U.S. as Frantic, later as Elevator to the Gallows) in 1957. A taut thriller featuring an original score by Miles Davis, the film made an international film star of Jeanne Moreau, at the time a leading stage actress of the state Comédie-Française. Malle was 24 years old.
Malle's The Lovers (Les Amants, 1958), which also starred Moreau, caused major controversy due to its sexual content leading to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case regarding the legal definition of obscenity. In Jacobellis v. Ohio, a theater owner was fined $2500 for obscenity. It was eventually reversed by the higher court that found that the film was not obscene and hence constitutionally protected. However, the court could not agree on the definition of "obscene," which caused Justice Potter Stewart to utter his "I know it when I see it" opinion, perhaps the most famous single line associated with the court.
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.
Other films also tackled taboo subjects: The Fire Within ("Le Feu follet") (1963) centres on a man about to commit suicide, Murmur of the Heart (1971) deals with an incestuous relationship between mother and son and Lacombe Lucien (1974) is about collaboration with the Nazis in Vichy France in World War II. The second film earned Malle his first (of three) Academy Award nominations for "Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced."
Malle later moved to the United States and continued to direct there. His later films include Pretty Baby (1978), Atlantic City (1981), My Dinner with Andre (1981), Crackers (1984), Alamo Bay (1985), Damage (1992) and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's play Uncle Vanya) in English; Au revoir, les enfants (1987) and Milou en Mai (May Fools in the U.S., 1990) in French. It is interesting to note that just as his earlier films such as Frantic and The Lovers helped popularize French films in the United States, My Dinner with Andre was at the forefront of the rise of American independent cinema in the 1980s.
Malle was married to Anne-Marie Deschodt from 1965 to 1967. He had a son, Manuel Cuotemoc (born 1971), with German actress Gila von Weitershausen and a daughter Justine (born 1974) with Canadian-born French actress Alexandra Stewart.
He married actress Candice Bergen in 1981. They had one child, a daughter, Chloé Malle, in 1985. He died at their home in Beverly Hills, California, of lymphoma.