Murmur of the Heart (1971)

“Children, there’ll be no sermon today. The news from Dien Bien Phu is very troubling. The last survivors face hand-to-hand combat outnumbered ten to one. Let us pray for those heroes who’ve gained the world’s admiration in recent weeks and particularly for two of our students who enlisted, Francois Barsac and Pierre de Chambiges. We’ve had no news of them. I hope one day, if called upon, you’ll be worthy of their example.”

‘Murmur of the Heart’, directed by Louis Malle in 1971, is a French movie set during the 1950s. The film focuses on a family, a strict father, his younger Italian wife and their three teenage sons. Laurent Chevalier, played by Benoît Ferreux, is the youngest of the three. He is desperate to lose his virginity, and is led by his brothers into increasingly sexualised situations. Eventually they end up in a brothel where, at the moment of achieving his aim, Laurent is interrupted by his siblings. After this he becomes ill and is forced to spend the summer as a retreat with his mother, played by Lea Massari. Whilst there, he meets two girls each of whom he tries to seduce, but he ends up having an incestuous encounter with his mother instead. It’s an odd film, light and nostalgic but, like Malle’s later ‘Au revoir les enfants’, with a deeply disturbing and dark core. In his latter film it was the brutality of occupation, here it is the almost psychopathic drive of the boys to seduce and sleep with women. The incest is shocking, but by the time it happens, you have followed Laurent and got to know him and, weirdly, the transition to taboo seems inevitable. The performance by Ferreux is great: remote, creepy, obnoxious, Laurent is a curious blend of innocence and precocious monster. He isn’t likeable, as with a lot of the children in Malle’s later film, but this seems to be the point. Malle appears to be preoccupied by the cruelty of the young, and this is a film in which that cruelty is fully explored.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a dark film, made all the darker for its strange, rose-tinted depiction of the life of the characters. Watch in a double bill with something like Pasolini’s ‘Mamma Roma’ for another relationship that goes down an inappropriate path.

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