The latest in an occasional series of uninformed essays about films I like. I was prompted to revive this semi-aborted project when I read the published screenplay of Le Souffle au Coeur last month to check whether I could still understand French. The reminder this gave me of my absolute devotion to this film, a devotion that, unlike so many other things, has endured for the best part of twenty years, made me think I ought to dig a little deeper.
In order to distinguish this blog post from everything else that has been written about Le Souffle au Coeur over the years, I will start with my personal discovery of the film. When I reached the age of 13 I developed a passion for foreign films, particularly French films. I loved them partly because watching things with subtitles made me feel mature, however illusory that feeling may have been, but more particularly because I loved the French language and because, largely by chance, the films I discovered happened to be about subjects close to my heart — love, boyhood, growing up (or not). It may be a false memory, but I think I was given a video of Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups on the same birthday that I received my first shaver.
(Digressing slightly, it was Jean Renoir’s Partie de Campagne that set me off, screened as part of the BBC’s ‘Cinema 100’ season in 1995. I saw many films for the first time then: The Wizard of Oz, King Kong, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Night of the Hunter. Vertigo too, I think. Every week a new epiphany. Those days are gone. When BBC2 showed Now, Voyager a couple of weeks ago I nearly had a coronary.)
Growing up in unmetropolitan Somerset in the 1990s, the way you got to see foreign films was to check what was on BBC2 or Channel 4 late at night and set the video, and that was precisely how I came across Le Souffle au Coeur, which was broadcast in a double bill with Malle’s Le Feu Follet at some point in February 1997. I think it was then, because I recall it being around the time of my brother’s birthday, and because I remember discussing it with my uncle on the phone, which would have to have been that year, and, most conclusively, because documentary evidence exists that proves I was 13 years old, namely this. I’m amazed it’s still there. I hadn’t perfected my polished prose style by that time, and doubtless what I wrote then was mostly derived from the thoughts of other people; but there it is. It contains spoilers, as will this.
Then, as now, the Radio Times included the film’s BBFC classification in its listings, and while I could generally get away with watching a 15, Le Souffle au Coeur was an 18, though it sounded tame enough to me. I was desperate to watch it. Fortunately the attention my parents paid to what I watched was not so scrupulous that I couldn’t sneak a film like this past them. I was naturally devious, they tacitly condoned my viewing of Eurotrash, and the parental veto was rarely enforced. Better that I should be watching a film about a boy visiting a brothel than that I should be visiting one myself, they might have reasoned, sensible people that they were. I loved the film so much I even showed it to my mother (a not infrequent occurrence, though a bold move in this instance; more on that later), who loved it too.
The film opens in the spring of 1954. The French are at war in Indochina. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Laurent (Benoît Ferreux) and a schoolfriend are stalking the streets of Dijon in pursuit of money, ostensibly for the wounded at Dien Bien Phu. They talk of jazz — Laurent loves Charlie Parker; his friend, less coolly, Jelly Roll Morton — and go into a record shop, where Laurent steals an LP while his friend attempts to butter up the owner. The owner moans that if he gave to every charity he’d have no money left. ‘Mais monsieur,’ pleads Laurent, ‘il s’agit de la France.’ The man puts a coin into the collecting tin, and Laurent and his friend move on. Laurent arrives home. His family house is grand, if a little faded, and doubles as his father’s gynaecological practice. At the door Laurent is greeted by his cat Joseph. ‘I’ll play you a record that’ll blow your mind,’ he says, and they go in.
I love this title sequence, which is an encapsulation in miniature of many aspects of the film: its style (I love the simplicity of the titles — Helvetica, is it?), its wickedness, its good humour, and (not least) jazz. And in barely four minutes, we have come to know its hero, Laurent, an intelligent, playful, cheeky adolescent who loves jazz and reading but doesn’t always play by the rules.
Laurent’s life at home is essentially a happy one. He has two mischievous elder brothers, Thomas and Marc (Fabien Ferreux and Marc Winocourt), who lead him through various rites of passage — smoking, meeting girls, and eventually sex — and lots of records (Parker, Gillespie) and books (Camus, Vian, Montherlant, Proust, Tintin). Laurent’s parents’ marriage is an unexpected one. His father, Charles (Daniel Gélin), is middle-aged and stuffy, his glamorous Italian mother, Clara (Lea Massari), a free spirit, much younger — indeed, she seems to be closer in age to her sons than to her husband. During a discussion of the war at dinner she describes colonial expeditions as ‘démodé’, which earns her a critical glance from Charles. She dotes on Laurent, and calls him ‘Renzino’.
There is a moment in the title sequence where Laurent’s friend spills some of the money he has collected. As they gather it up again, Laurent giggles. This is a sign of things to come. Rarely can a film have been made that contains more laughter. Laurent returns home to find his father ranting at his secretary for having double-booked him. Laurent laughs as he cradles Joseph. He then finds his brothers in conference with his mother. While Marc stands guard, Thomas extracts some money from her purse. The subsequent chase around the room is resolved not in anger but in laughter. A number of scenes in which Thomas and Marc misbehave — getting Laurent’s ruler out to compare penis size (‘Je bande pas, c’est mon état normal!’), playing spinach tennis at the dinner table, getting Laurent drunk and letting a girlfriend teach him French kissing at a party — end by being foiled by the family servant Augusta (Ave Ninchi), but whereas in another film the interruption would have been ominous, in each case here the good humour is maintained. It’s unusual that a film should show people having fun and getting on with each other to such an extent, and unusual that there should be so little threat to the harmony of Laurent’s existence. He doesn’t get on with his father, but there’s no suggestion that he may attempt emancipation. A film with so little conflict might be unspeakably dull, but Le Souffle au Coeur is not.
The film draws heavily on Malle’s own childhood. He grew up in a bourgeois industrialist family, had two boisterous elder brothers, and, like Laurent, was diagnosed with a heart murmur and had to go away to a sanatorium to recover. Malle told Philip French:
During my early years as an adult — not that I had been an unhappy child, actually I had a happy childhood — I rebelled violently against my background and education. I suppressed my childhood and didn’t want to deal with it, which perhaps explains why my early films were not about my childhood the way most first films are. But, after India [where Malle had gone to make documentaries], it came back. I had reached a point where I was beyond rebellion and I was trying to understand what had happened to me and how I’d become who I was. It’s not that I consciously went back to my childhood; my childhood came back to me.
Malle’s early films grew out of collaboration with right-wing writers and actors, but by the 1970s Malle’s own political beliefs had settled into a sort of left-wing libertarianism. Le Souffle au Coeur is a symbol of that, a family drama that subverts the bourgeois morality of his childhood, playfully but (to some viewers) shockingly.
Laurent is diagnosed with a heart murmur after contracting scarlet fever at scout camp, and is advised by his doctor to visit the spa town of Bourbon-les-Eaux for a cure. The scenes that follow form the most joyous sequence of the whole film: Augusta changes the ice on his chest, which he tolerates grumpily; Clara sits by his bedside and talks of her childhood, singing Italian folksongs with her guitar; his brothers visit to give him presents of music and books and to tell him of their sexual exploits; his confessor, Père Henri (Michael Lonsdale), visits to teach him Heraclitus, and is gently mocked by Laurent and Clara; finally, Laurent and Thomas try to play chess while their parents, uncle and aunt are glued to the television (subversion of traditional roles). Marc comes in to announce he has passed his exams, then in a moment of high spirits attacks a Corot painting on the wall with a knife. We know it is a forgery, but the adults don’t, and the three boys are in hysterics at their outrage. This series of vignettes builds up a picture of Laurent’s life far more effectively than a single, drawn-out scene would, and that is the case throughout the film. Malle is rarely thought of as an auteur, because his style seems to vary so wildly from film to film, but he often shows himself to be a great storyteller. His way of telling this story may appear almost casual, but it masks a great sophistication.
The second half of the film takes place at Bourbon-les-Eaux, where due to an administrative blunder Laurent and Clara have to share a room. Laurent strikes up friendships with the other teenagers staying at the sanatorium, and Clara flirts with a self-satisfied young man, Hubert. Laurent protests this in the strongest terms: Hubert is an idiot, and a royalist! Laurent’s quite right about Hubert, but his objections are a sign of jealousy, and his relationship with Clara often appears to be equivalent to that of a husband and wife, or at least of two close friends. When Laurent discovers his mother is expecting a visit from a man she has been having an affair with, he gives her his blessing: ‘Quoique tu fasses, je t’aime et je suis avec toi.’ After the relationship has ended, he consoles her, acting as her confidant. She expresses a thought that may have occurred to the viewer: that this is an unusual conversation for a mother and son to be having. ‘Pourquoi pas?’ he replies. ‘Je suis ton ami.’ When, both somewhat drunk after Bastille Day celebrations, they fall into bed together and make love tenderly, it feels the most natural thing in the world. Malle again:
When the picture was released, I was standing outside a theatre on the Champs Élysées listening to people’s reactions as they came out. I remember two women, obviously members of the bourgeoisie, coming out of the film. They had wonderful smiles and really seemed very happy. Suddenly one of them said, ‘It was horrible what we just saw.’ Then they started arguing. One said, ‘I thought it was funny and touching.’ Then, ‘No, no, it’s terrible.’ And she suddenly became very pompous. I tried to follow them on the Champs Élysées, but at some point they noticed that I was listening. I think it was a case of double-take for many people; they enjoyed the film tremendously, and then when they thought about it, they said, ‘Hey, this is a very scandalous proposition.’ I really liked that. It’s one of the things I’ve always liked to do, forcing people to reconsider preconceived ideas.
I imagine Malle came under a certain amount of pressure from his studio to end the film differently. If you get busy with your mother, you have to pay the price. Any Ancient Greek can tell you that. And if memory serves there is a moment in the screenplay where Laurent briefly contemplates a razor blade. What happens, though, is that Clara explains to him gently that what has happened will not happen again, but that she will think of it fondly. Laurent goes out, gets into bed with another girl, and returns the next morning, shoes in hand, to find his father and brothers waiting for him. Realising the implication of Laurent returning shoeless, Thomas and Marc begin to laugh. Charles joins in, then Clara, then finally Laurent himself. It is the only way the film could have ended, with the reintroduction of laughter, the dissolution of tension.
When I revisited the film a couple of days ago, I found I hardly needed to. I’ve assimilated it. What is its legacy to me? Laurent’s tastes certainly influenced my reading (I think perhaps I had already read Camus’ L’Étranger, but it inspired me to try Le Mythe de Sisyphe, which I managed about 30 pages of before giving up; later, I fell in love with Montherlant), but the main thing it gave me was jazz. I don’t imagine a day will dawn when I fail to see the point of Charlie Parker. I even share Laurent’s lack of humour about it. At the sanatorium he asks a girl, Hélène, back to his room to listen to his records. When she suggests dancing to them, he retorts, ‘Sont des disques pour écouter, pas pour danser.’