Le souffle au coeur (1971)

MURMUR OF THE HEART (Souffle au coeur, Le)

(director/writer: Louis Malle; cinematographer: Ricardo Aronovich; editors: Suzanne Baron/Catherine Snopko/ Solange Leprince; music: Gaston Freche/Charlie Parker/Henri Renaud; cast: Lea Massari (Clara Chevalier), Benoit Ferreux (Laurent Chevalier), Daniel Gelin (Charles Chevalier), Michael Lonsdale (Father Henri), Ave Ninchi (Augusta), Gila von Weitershausen (Freda), Fabien Ferreux (Thomas Chevalier), Marc Winocourt (Marc Chevalier), Jacqueline Chauvaud (Helene), Corinne Kersten (Daphne), François Werner (Hubert); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Vincent Malle/Claude Nedjar; New Yorker Films; 1971-France-in French with English subtitles)

“I was more than a little taken aback by the smugness of these privileged sorts.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Iconoclastic director-writer Louis Malle’s (“Au Revoir Les Enfants”/”Black Moon”/”Elevator to the Gallows”) semiautobiographical sexual coming-of-age film is a lighthearted look at sexual awakening any way you can get it. It has a certain impertinence that holds one’s interest but keeps it from reaching one’s heart. It’s mostly true, Malle tells interviewers, except for the part of the accidental incest between the teenage son and mom. In any case, it shows how incest is a taboo but can be so natural. Malle received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.

It’s set in Dijon, France in 1954. Precocious, intellectual and sensitive fifteen-year-old Laurent Chevalier (Benoit Ferreux) lives with his upper-middle-class bourgeoisie family, and is suffering from growing pains and the aches of ending his virginity. His father Charles (Daniel Gélin) is a successful gynecologist but is distant from the family and clueless that his knockout younger Italian wife Clara (Lea Massari), who he’s crazy about, is having an extra-marital affair, something Laurent knows but won’t tell anyone else about. Mom’s favorite son is Laurent, and she constantly babies him and openly smothers him with affection. Laurent’s playful and jerky older brothers Thomas (Fabien Ferreux, Benoit’s real brother) and Marc (Marc Winocourt) steal money from mom and get a charge out of teasing their little brother and making life hell for their housekeeper (Ave Ninchi). Laurent is no angel, in fact he’s a spoiled brat just like his siblings. He steals money by collecting in the street, in tin cans, money to aid the Red Cross for the French in Indochina, and steals from a record shop the latest Charlie Parker album. The crude siblings seemingly do a good turn for their little brother and pay for the gangly Laurent to lose his virginity to a brothel prostitute (Gila von Weitershausen), and then ruin the moment when they drunkenly pounce on him before he ends his virginity. When it’s discovered he has a touch of scarlet fever, causing a heart murmur, he’s sent to a luxurious health spa in Bourbon and is accompanied by his mom. He’s told by the pretty blonde girl he meets at the spa, Helene (Jacqueline Chauvaud), that she likes him but doesn’t want to have sex with him. The frustrated lad is bailed out after a Bastille Day dance when his drunken mom, after flirting with schoolboys, workers and soldiers, invites him into her bed for a one time trip to the promised land. That’s followed by the lad now getting up enough nerve for a late night visit to Helene in her hotel room and again being rejected, but scoring with her girlfriend Daphne (Corinne Kersten) who has a room down the hall.

The incest was delicately handled in a very natural way and tended to seem more amusing than revolting, though certainly there’s still some shock value no matter how that’s played down; but the gist of the observant and witty film really concerns the frustrations over bourgeois conventions and how the kid, who seemed mostly obnoxious and self-absorbed, can get out of the tight grip his family has on him and mature into a real person who can love another without smothering them. The family is seen as both nurturing and as hindering his growth, but it concludes on a positive note of renewed family harmony.

But I must say that I was more than a little taken aback by the smugness of these privileged sorts and hardly appreciated or found myself relating to their aristocratic and patronizing ways. Nonactor Benoit Ferreux in the lead role carried the film with his persuasive natural performance, while Lea Massari’s sensuous and unapologetic free-spirited portrayal brims with a soothing depravity for an unsuited role model for a mother who gets by because she’s so good-looking, vulnerable and warm-hearted.


REVIEWED ON 10/24/2007 GRADE: B-