click to buy “The Documentaries of Louis Malle” at Amazon.comAfter six months in India you’re not even quite sure that two plus two is four.

– Louis Malle (1)

In 1967, Louis Malle was established as a major international filmmaker, a decade after his first fiction film, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold) in 1957. His second film, Les Amants (The Lovers, 1958) had been a major critical success, as well as gaining a degree of notoriety with its story of a rich bored woman (Jeanne Moreau) who leaves her husband and small child, to drive off into the sunrise with a young archæologist she’d given a lift to when his 2CV broke down. It became known as a major film of the French New Wave, although Louis Malle felt apart from other young directors such as Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut who had been associated with Cahiers du Cinéma.

I never was part of the Cahiers du Cinéma group: they were all very close, they were friends, they’d worked together as critics, they’d helped each other to make their shorts, then their first features – there was a real tight connection between them. I was never part of this, but I knew them. What we had in common was we loved films, we took film-making very seriously. […] And it was strictly a director’s movement, with a new sensibility. In a way, we were children of this new Kodak film, the Tri-X, because suddenly it was possible to shoot in the street, to shoot in real interiors, with very little light, which means a smaller crew, much smaller budgets, and it gave us the freedom to work infinitely closer to reality than the older generation. (2)

Zazie dans le Métro (Zazie, 1960) had been a complete change of pace. His attempts to find a cinematic equivalent to the free-wheeling prose of novelist Raymond Queneau were certainly not commercially successful.

Vie Privée (A Very Private Affair, 1961) was made on the rebound from the flop of Zazie. It was a project largely brought to Malle by a producer, Christine Gouze-Rénal, wanting a project for Brigitte Bardot, and for Malle it was a very unhappy experience. He turned from it to a much smaller, but very challenging work, Le Feu Follet (1963), a moody, intimate story about a young man committing suicide. He made this film for his own company, Nouvelles Éditions de Films, and it was “the first of my films that I was completely happy with” (3).

His next two films were by contrast much larger entertainments, co-productions between his company and United Artists. Viva Maria (1965) starred Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau as entertainers caught up in one of Mexico’s revolutions. In Le Voleur (The Thief of Paris, 1967), Jean-Paul Belmondo was a gentleman-thief in fin-de-siècle Paris. Then, at the urgings of Alain Delon, he agreed to make an episode for the omnibus film, Histoires Extraordinaires (1967), based on stories by Edgar Allen Poe. The other episodes were made by Federico Fellini and Roger Vadim. Malle’s experiences on this film (his episode was based on the story, “William Wilson”) were very unhappy.

He has also indicated that he was going through a difficult period in his private life at this time. So, he was very happy to accept an invitation in the autumn of 1967 to present a series of French films in India, including his own Le Feu Follet:

I was supposed to stay two weeks but I ended up staying almost two months. I was so amazed by India – it was my first trip, but I had always been interested in Indian religions. I knew India would be a shock, but it was much more so than I expected. After those two months I realized that although India was impossible to understand for a foreigner – it was so opaque – yet I was so completely fascinated by it that I would have to come back. (4)

One of the people that Malle met was Satyajit Ray:

He took me to his studio in Calcutta and showed me several of his films that had not been released in France. I also met a number of westernized intellectuals and artists and, like a good Frenchman, I tried to understand Indian culture and Indian religions rationally. Of course, in a matter of days I realised how silly it was. Indians have such a completely different approach to everything – for instance, how they deal with death. The Indian way is the opposite of our Judaeo-Christian tradition. At this moment of crisis in my life, when I was trying to re-evaluate everything I had taken for granted so far, India was the perfect tabula rasa; it was just like starting from scratch. (5)

At first, Malle travelled around alone with only a 16mm camera. Then he returned with a small film crew of three. For the four months of shooting, Malle said he had not the faintest idea what he was going to do with the material. At first he had disagreements with his cameraman, Étienne Becker (son of director Jacques Becker). The professional cameraman was disconcerted with the way that the people they were filming were looking right at the camera. But Malle’s attitude is an important formative influence on the subsequent finished film.

Why should I tell them not to look at us since we’re intruders. First, I don’t speak their language; just a few of them speak a little English. We’re the intruders disturbing them. They don’t know what we’re doing, so it’s perfectly normal that they look at us. To tell them not to look at us, it’s the beginning of mise-en-scène. It’s what I resent about so many documentaries where film-makers arrive from somewhere and start by telling the people, ‘Pretend we’re not here.’ It is the basic lie of most documentaries, this naïve mise-en-scène, the beginning of the distortion of the truth. Very quickly I realized that these looks at the camera were both disturbing and true, and we should never pretend we weren’t intruder. (6)


Subsequently, Malle organised his material into a documentary initially released in cinemas, Calcutta (1968-9), and a seven-part television series, L’Inde fantôme: Reflexions sur un voyage (Phantom India, 1969). The first episode of the series is sub-titled The Impossible Camera, and Malle as director and commentator specifically structures it to explore the role of the camera and the people using it when trying to understand a culture. As a foreigner, he is fascinated by – and films – vultures on a buffalo’s corpse. The Indians ignore the sight – for them, it is just an ordinary everyday scene. On the first day of filming, he informs us, one woman fled from the camera. The camera was “stealing herself from her”.

Malle arrived back in Paris with all his footage from India at the beginning of May 1968. This was the height of the political turmoil that rocked France that year, spreading from student demonstrations into strikes that paralysed much of France; it would lead to the cancellation of the Cannes Film Festival later that month. Although he had thought that he would only remain briefly in Paris, the political events (for over a month he couldn’t even see his rushes because of strikes in the laboratories) and the editing kept him in Paris until practically the end of 1969. A generation later Malle would revisit this period in Milou en Mai (Milou in May, 1989).

Out of this material, he ultimately fashioned a fascinating and involving documentary series. A major strength is the rigorous way that Malle always attempts to look beneath the veneer of our Western pre-conceptions to see if there is another truth.

A good example was a religious ceremony in a little temple near a village and after the ceremony the faithful were giving money and food to the beggars. But when I talked to them afterwards I realized those beggars were not really beggars, they were Brahmins. They were members of the higher caste, the priest caste, and were, by Indian standards quite well off, but it was part of the ritual to give money and food to the Brahmins. We Westerners thought we were filming beggars and actually it was something else. It was typical of what always happened to us in India; we thought we were filming a reality and behind this reality there was another one. The truth was always more complicated and devious. So, I never pretended, ‘This is eight hours of India, I am going to explain it to you.’ – I did exactly the opposite. (7)

It is this approach that permeates Calcutta and the seven episodes of Phantom India – and very much justifies the sub-title, Reflections on a Journey. For example, the second episode (Things Seen in Madras) starts with a long, leisurely sequence following a juggernaut on a five-hour circuit. We are fascinated by the crowds of men exerting themselves to control and drag this massive religious float on its circuit in Madras. The Westerners’ perspective is acknowledged – he was, he admits caught up in the excitement, shooting reel after reel. It seemed different to Paris! After this sequence, he moves on, seeing a play in Tamil that was attacking bureaucratic corruption, and a family planning stand at a Madras fair. Then from posters advertising some of the films produced by the 15 major film studios in Madras we finish with a look at a theosophical dance, and we are given a lot of time to observe the students learning the dances. The use of time to allow us to also observe at length is important.

Phantom India: Things Seen in Madras

But the end of this sequence expresses the unknowability of India for Westerners. We have seen young Indian students intently learning the ritual dances, absorbing and reflecting the intricate levels of significance and spirituality for them in the dances. Then we see two Westerners trying to learn the dances. They are competent – but there is an inherent emptiness in their steps. These are people probably disaffected by their own country, trying to become part of an exoticism that they will never be part of. They will never have the “true spirit” of India.

Phantom India and Calcutta are definitely the major works in a new DVD box set, The Documentaries of Louis Malle, released by Eclipse. On their own they would justify the existence of the set. However, there are other riches as well. They were not Malle’s first excursion into documentary. In fact, he got his start in filmmaking when, still in his early twenties, he elbowed his way into being co-director with underwater explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau of a documentary film, Le Monde du Silence (The Silent World, 1956). In 1962, he visited Algeria several times at the height of the Algerian war with the intention of a return to documentary. However, he was unhappy with his material and the footage was never edited.

The same year, he filmed the Tour de France, following the marathon French cycle race with two other cameramen. The result, Vive le Tour (1962), is the oldest (and shortest) of Malle’s documentaries to be included in the box set. An impressionistic view of the race, it is still highly enjoyable and has not dated. It could be a race from any year (although I am sure Tour de France enthusiasts would recognise which year’s race it is.) Instead, we have a strong sense of the ongoing meaning of the race to France and the French. A brief focus on doping seems to anticipate the less innocent world that is the Tour today, while Georges Delerue’s music score also seems to anticipate the score he would write for Malle several years later for Viva Maria.

When he returned to fiction film making after the Indian experience, Malle made two deeply personal films, Le Souffle au Cæur (Murmur of the Heart, 1971) and Lacombe, Lucien (1974) The documentary filmmaking had been very important to Malle personally. He also credits it with informing the way he subsequently approached aspects of his fiction filmmaking. He realised that often in shooting for the documentaries he allowed his instincts to take over, instead of trying to control every aspect of the frame, from the location of a piece of furniture to the way an actor made a gesture. But when filming in the villages this approach was not possible:

I think this experience of relying on my instincts was quite decisive in my work. When I went back to fiction, I’ve always been unconsciously and also very consciously, trying to reinvent those very privileged moments. I’ve always tried to rediscover the state of innocence that I found so extraordinary working in India. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way, but since then I have made a number of films with children and adolescents, and have always tried to give them the freedom of expressing themselves, trying to let them loose, rather than trying to boss them around – seizing those moments when they were free, when they were themselves – for these privileged moments will always bring to the screen something completely different. I was able to accomplish that when I did documentaries in the following years. But even in my fiction work I think I’ve been enormously influenced by what I discovered in India. (8)

Lacombe, Lucien aroused some criticisms for its apparently sympathetic portrait of a naïve young man who collaborates with the Germans occupying France. One critic was Marcel Ophüls, director of a major documentary on the Occupation, Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity, 1969). Malle’s response to Ophüls’ criticism gives an insight into his approach to his documentary filmmaking as well:

Le Chagrin et la Pitié is a very ideological film. Ophuls wanted to make a point, which was new at the time, of examining what happened in a provincial town, Clermont-Ferrand. He really wanted to expose things that had been hidden. He was trying to prove something, and to expose French collaboration. He was very much into making a moral judgement. For me, the point was made. I wanted to go beyond that. Rather than passing judgement, I wanted to scrutinize a kind of behaviour that is very hard to understand and was certainly contemptible. After all, if people are shocked by ambiguity, they should not see my films. (9)

In the same year that he completed Lacombe, Lucien, Malle made two feature-length documentaries, both included in the Eclipse box set. Humain, Trop Humain (1974) is the only one of his documentaries that does not include Malle’s presence on the soundtrack as commentator/philosopher. Filmed on the production line of the Citroën production line in Brittany and at the Paris Motor Show, it sets out, especially in its second half, to expose the dehumanising nature of the production line. The camerawork flows freely across a range of tasks, from the large jobs of fabricating the car’s shell, to the small tasks of stitching car seats. The boring nature of much of the work comes across. Malle has said, “I wanted the spectator to come out of seeing this film exhausted, as if they had worked an eight-hour shift. […] I wanted to give a physical sense of the fatigue and boredom – the completely inhuman aspect of assembly-line work.” (10)

But ultimately the film itself is boring. Although we see some workers setting out to take their breaks, or doing some tasks repetitively, there is very little sense of people in the finished film. The sequence at the Motor Show goes on too long, and there is none of the camera/subject interaction that marks Phantom India.

Place de la République

Place de la République (1974) is livelier. This is very simply an observation of people coming and going in and around the Place de la République in Paris, filmed over a period of ten days. Calmly, with no sense of exploitation, we meet a fascinating number of interesting people. There is the woman, bubbling and full of life, hustling because her husband of many years died three months ago. A retired, Jewish-Polish tailor spent the war in hiding. Another man had only six months of schooling because his school was requisitioned as a barracks for German soldiers.

Sometimes scenes are filmed with a concealed camera, but more frequently Malle openly acknowledges its presence, and his presence as well, as part of a subject/camera relationship. Although the cultural feel is miles away from India, there is the same sense of humanity. He concludes his film with a quote from Raymond Queneau (author of the book from which he adapted Zazie): “‘Why’, he said, “should one not tolerate this life, when so little suffices to deprive one of it.’”

Malle’s filmography lists another documentary, Close Up (1976), a portrait of Dominique Sanda. Its status seems unclear. Some sources indicate that it was made as a private commission. Sadly, it is not part of this box set.

Malle had been a frequent visitor to the USA, where he was to make some of his best, and best-known, films, including Pretty Baby (1978), Atlantic City (1980) and My Dinner with André (1981). After completing Pretty Baby¸ he did some filming in a mid-West town, Glencoe in Minneapolis. Then he “parked’ the footage for several years while he worked on other projects. When he returned to it in 1985, he had extra funding from PBS so he could revisit to the town, and see how it had changed. Acknowledging that many of his films have been set in the past, he has seen his documentaries as a way he could look at the present:

I could confront the present better with cinéma direct, in 16mm, in a documentary form. […] Cinéma vérité is not a term that I like to use: cinéma vérité is cinéma mensonge. Cinéma vérité has a moral implication: it’s meant to define the truth, which is very pretentious and not necessarily true. I like cinéma direct because it’s more a technique than anything else. What I call cinéma direct is a kind of documentary where you completely improvise, you work with a minimal crew, you don’t try to organize reality, you just try to find where your interest or curiosity takes you, you try to film what you find interesting or surprising, and later try to make sense of it in the cutting room. It’s a cinema of instinct, of improvisation, a cinema very much of the present. (11)

When he was filming in Glencoe for the film that would become God’s Country (1986), Étienne Becker, his cameraman from the French documentaries, was not available, so Malle handled the camera himself:

Since all the crucial decisions in this kind of filming are made by the cameraman, I though it was maybe just as well. By taking the camera myself, I discovered it added a dimension to my work which made my relationship with the people I was dealing with more personal and intimate than just standing beside the camera or handling a second camera as I’d done before. (12)

Now, over twenty years later, God’s Country comes across as an intimate time capsule of heartland America. By letting the material sit for five years, Malle was able to capture the way that social moods can change. In 1979, the mood in Glencoe, a very white, successful and probably self-satisfied community, was optimistic. By 1985, now under Reagan’s Presidency, the mood had changed. But although it was largely Reagan’s policies that were hurting them, they were still rusted on Republican voters. This is very much a portrait of conservatives. What a shame Malle is no longer around to go back and have a look at Glencoe twenty years on.

Louis Malle

His other feature documentary was …And the Pursuit of Happiness (1987). Malle was commissioned to make a programme for television to mark the centenary of the Statue of Liberty. As a new arrival himself in the USA, he was interested in how newly arrived immigrants were thriving in their new home. He has assembled a rich array, a testimony to everything that migrants bring a country. In Nebraska, the only Vietnamese for miles around is the doctor. A top actor from Russia now gives acting lessons. And Arab Americans talk about the difficulty in being accepted. This is in 1986!

The immense variety of people interviews gives the film a strong personality of its own. In its quiet, undemonstrative way, it is a political statement on the richness of multi-culturalism. But Malle’s own evaluation of his two American documentaries is also valid. “…And the Pursuit of Happiness is interesting and I like a lot of it, but I prefer God’s Country because it is closer to what I really like, the sort of chance filming that I really enjoy and that has always worked well for me. ” (13)

* * *

This documentary box set is from the Criterion stable, under their new Eclipse label. This new label is designed to package rarer or more esoteric material in a more compact version. Over six discs, it includes Phantom India (over two discs) and Calcutta. Vive le Tour, Humain, Trop Human and Place de la République are on a single disc. The two American documentaries are each on separate discs. Apart from liner notes, there are no extras. All transfers are good, or reflect the quality of the source material, which is generally credited as “Une restauration: archives françaises du film”. Strangely, there are no end-credits on any episodes of Phantom India or Calcutta. In all cases, the film just stops, although there is no sense that any actual material is missing. However, who knows for sure without accessing probably complete copies.

Also, it is a pity that, in the case of Phantom India, Eclipse has sourced the French version. Although it is certainly the original version, the English version is regarded by Malle as the better version.

In making the English version I improved aspects of the film. We fine-tuned the editing. We had this contract with French television and were rushed by our deadline. The English version is a little better: the sound is better; my narration is better. I incorporated some changes as a result of the reactions I got when the films were shown on French TV. (14)

This box set is ultimately more than a footnote on an important filmmaking career, but a rich collection of insightful and fascinating documentaries, exciting films in their own right.

Click here to order The Documentaries of Louis Malle from  Amazon.com


  1. Philip French, Malle on Malle (London, Faber and Faber, 1993).
  2. Ibid, pp. 31-2.
  3. Ibid, p. 40.
  4. Ibid, p. 68-9.
  5. Ibid, p. 69.
  6. Ibid, p. 71.
  7. Ibid, p. 73.
  8. Ibid, p. 77.
  9. Ibid, pp. 103-4.
  10. Ibid, p. 162.
  11. Ibid, p. 155.
  12. Ibid, p. 156.
  13. Ibid, p. 161.
  14. Ibid, p. 78.

About The Author

Peter Hourigan has spent many years going to the movies, being involved with film society and film festival bodies, as well as teaching movies with secondary students. He also leads adult discussion groups with Centre for Adult Education (Melbourne).

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