Louis Malle continues to disappoint. Or at least underwhelm me. I just viewed Elevator to the Gallows. It is a beautifully shot (D.P.: Henri Decaë) film and has a beautiful score (Miles Davis). But the film has no curiosity about the medium or about life whatsoever. You could perhaps say this is not fair for someone's first film, but when there's not even an inkling it does not bode well for the future.
While I am well schooled in many of the great directors, especially those of the nouvelle vague, I have seen almost no Louis Malle, and there is a reason. Every time I see one it puts me off seeing any further ones for quite a while. (And I am not trying to knock him down from any pedestal of "the great directors" since I believe very few venture to place him there anyway. Nor is he generally regarded as a member of the nouvelle vague.)
The first I saw, which it is impossible for me to judge, was Au revoir, les enfants (1987). Well, I can judge it, but I can't recall it very well, as I saw it in school, but it made a fairly negative impression on me at the time. (Although I was not interested in film as an art at the time.) In any case, it seemed a pretty straightforward, mainstream weepy-entertainment-- the sort that is palatable and easy for AMPAS to nominate--oh, yeah, and of course, it did. (While quality films like 8 1/2 have been nominated, they are the exception to themediocrityy that rules the Oscars foreign film section.) A constant aversion to the Oscars and my association of Louis Malle with that sort of filmmaking caused me to steer clear of his films from an early age (however unfair that may have been, given the youthful state of my mind when I saw it!).
The next encounter with Malle was in viewing a bootleg of his film Black Moon, a horrifically bad attempt at an "experimental" film, that showed again that Malle just doesn't get it. He doesn't understand film (as an art), and he doesn't understand art--at all, it would seem. Perhaps this is why he's most comfortable in the world of the cinéma de qualité because he sure didn't seem comfortable in the idiotic dreamlike world of Black Moon. That film is an unqualifiable disaster from beginning to end. It will bore you to tears. The basic root of the problem is he has translated a dream (perhaps a specific dream of his) into film and tried to represent a dream as accurately as possible--but unanalyzed (and with no success or even attempt in communicating the "non-concreteness" inherent in all dreams). Approaches like "pure cinema" would interest me far more (abstract association of images without an attempt at divining or creating meaning). I guess anyone could make the mistake he did, but I think a decent director would have seen how horrible and boring this all was and dumped it, reworked it, saved it somehow. But he's just sort of like a mindless robot, seemingly incapable of self-analysis, as his films are incapable of a self-analysis of their own medium, which interests in filmmakers like Godard.
But now Criterion is shoving him in our faces by finally getting a few of his previously unavailable films out on DVD here in the U.S. (Even if I may hate certain films, I want them to be available on DVD-- otherwise how can one evaluate for oneself?) They've released Au revoir, Lacombe Lucien and Murmur of the Heart, but I finally took the bait, wanting to start at the beginning, with their release of Elevator to the Gallows. This was a much more tolerable outing for me than the previous two, but all the emptiness of this filmmaker's vision is there to behold from the beginning. You can almost see it visualized in the endless wandering scenes of Jeanne Moreau where nothing perhaps is going on in her head. And this would serve for me as the representation of Malle's mind: wandering about aimlessly with nothing going on in it. He seemed to recognize this and was compelled to add internal thought voiceover to illustrate her "thoughts." But these thoughts he added were all the self-evident things we would expect her to be thinking, and thus are entirely redundant. And so it is here that we see the inner workings of Malle's mind: he is never thinking anything beyond what you expect him to be thinking. Here, where there could have been something interesting added to the film, there is merely redundancy, meaningless reinforcement. No self-analysis, no meaningful self-reflection. The fact that he couldn't leave it blank either is another indication of his poor artistic instincts.
I've only seen three, so I'll leave it there-- a kind of premature condemnation.