Retrospective: Le Souffle Au Cœur (Murmur of the Heart) (1971)

Let’s talk about incest. Has that got your attention? Good. This a French new wave movie about exactly that and the incest is frankly the least of its problems. This film is extremely unusual as its content doesn’t bother me unduly because the movie deals with it in a very restrained manner, especially considering other French movies of the new wave and the unpleasantness of the genre generally. The filmmaking and style isn’t the problem either as I love the way Louis Malle shoots
his work, which is professional and restrained and doesn’t make life difficult for the viewer. What bothers me about the film is the characters.

Like other Malle films, this has some basis in reality. Malle was the youngest of three brothers who bullied him and introduced him to sex in a rather unpleasant, domineering fashion and he also suffered from a heart murmur during his childhood. This movie follows the nearly fifteen year old Laurent Chevalier and his family, including the distant father and his very affectionate Italian wife (who is significantly younger) and his two older brothers, who start Laurent on his path. They take him to a brothel where he has sex with a prostitute until they interrupt him midway through. The deeply pretentious nature of the family is perhaps the most aggravating part of the film. It is not a particularly happy family as both parents are having affairs and have had others previously. This has affected the children who have a libertarian opinion of sex, not helped by after dinner conversations. One particular example of this occurs when the mother is reading the Story of O (a BDSM novel, pretty much the 50s equivalent of 50 Shades of Grey). It seemed awfully strange to have this fourteen year old comforting his mother in this way after her affair has taken a bad turn, whilst getting drunk with her. In this film it just happen, strange and thrown in.

The movie has a really strong jazz soundtrack. I was very surprised to learn that the great Dizzy Gillespie was so prominent throughout the movie, which accompanies our French protagonist’s sexual travails, his heart murmur, his recuperation and his relationships. It’s a French new wave movie that isn’t part of the mainstream of that movement so therefore not as well known. As a movie it couldn’t be further from the best known examples of the genre, such as Belle du Jour or Breathless. It features an influential director of the genre and a similar subject matter that made those movies popularised but not so much the style. It’s a movie I didn’t particularly enjoy but I could see it’s worth seeing despite my dislike of the characters who are all so pretentious and unlikeable. Only the French would enjoy placing incest at the core of the plot but the way it is presented is something small, throwaway and irrelevant. This is a fascinating approach for such a taboo subject and I have to appreciate that even if I dislike the movie. Review by Harry Riedl


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