Louis Malle, the descendant of a French nobleman who made a fortune in beet sugar during the Napoleonic Wars, created films that explored life and its meaning. Malle’s family discouraged his early interest in film but, in 1950, allowed him to enter the Institute of Advanced Cinematographic Studies in Paris. His résumé showed that he had worked as an assistant to film maker Robert Bresson when Malle was hired by underwater explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau to be a camera operator on the Calypso. Cousteau soon promoted him to be co-director of Le monde du silence (1956) (“The Silent World”). Years later, Cousteau called Malle the best underwater cameraman he ever had. Malle’s third film, The Lovers (1958) (“The Lovers”), starring Jeanne Moreau broke taboos against on screen eroticism. In 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the obscenity conviction of an Ohio theater that had exhibited “Les Amants.” A director during the Nouvelle Vague, New Wave” of 1950s and 1960s (though technically not considered a Nouvelle Vague auteur), he also made films on the other side of the Atlantic, starting with Pretty Baby (1978), the film that made Brooke Shields an international superstar. The actress who played a supporting role in that film was given a starring role in Malle’s next American film, Atlantic City (1980). That promising actress was Susan Sarandon.
In one of his later French films, Au Revoir les Enfants (1987), Malle was able to find catharsis for an experience that had haunted him since the German occupation of France in World War II. At age 12, he was sent to a Catholic boarding school near Paris that was a refuge for several Jewish students, one of them was Malle’s rival for academic honors and his friend. A kitchen worker at the school with a grudge became an informant. The priest who was the principal was arrested and the Jewish students were sent off to concentration camps.
In his final film, Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), Malle again penetrated the veil between life and art as theater people rehearse Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” In that film, Malle worked again with theater director Andre Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn, the conversationalists of My Dinner with Andre (1981). Malle was married to Candice Bergen, and he succumbed to lymphoma in 1995.
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