LOUIS MALLE'S "Murmur of the Heart" is a great film -- some say his greatest. It's hard to argue.
It came out in 1971. I don't know what divine intercession we owe its re-release to 18 years later, but bless it whatever it is.
It turned out, as the '70s went on, to be one of the greatest films of the decade. It opens today, rated R and with subtitles, in the Amherst Theater.
That a French comedy ending with untraumatic and unpunished mother-son incest could be warm, sweet, lovely and altogether heartening is something no one quite believed until they saw the film (it still seems highly unlikely until you actually see it).
In the world of this movie, incest is merely another act in a lifetime of maternal spoiling, the ultimate secret confidence shared by an unusually complicitous mother and son. In such movies, the French moral sense -- so many worlds away from American rectitude -- is like an impossibly strange and perhaps wise teacher to an adolescent world.
To some of us, Malle himself was the most natural and least theoretical of all the cineastes in the French cinematic Reformation that came to be known as "the New Wave." He is the only one who survives today and continues to be an object of uncommon and equivalent interest.
No one understands the pathologies of male adolescence like Louis Malle. Most great artists have a territory where they can roam freely and with confident mastery. Adolescent boyhood is Malle's just as it was J. D. Salinger's.
Fifteen-year-old Laurent is at the stage of '50s French bourgeois life where you discover Charlie Parker, the stage where the ruler becomes the symbol of the triumph of pubescence. "Renzino" (as his Italian mother calls him) writes about suicide and Camus and smokes on the sly.
This is the same adolescent world Malle's "Au Revoir Les Enfants" explored more than 15 years later, with sexual initiation replacing induction into the world's sociopolitical horrors. But where "Au Revoir" is merely superb, "Murmur of the Heart" is a masterwork.
That it is affecting as it is is because of an astounding performance by Lea Massari -- the actress who disappeared (in fiction) in Antonioni's "L'Aventura" and all but disappeared (in reality) after this movie. As the Italian mother of Renzino, she radiates warmth, spontaneity, sensuality and earthiness.
She plays the guitar and sings folk songs, laughs and chatters at him and touches him constantly. She is both the image of the doting, nurturing mother and a woman so bursting with femaleness that just to be around her is to fall in love a little (believe me, it applies to members of the audience).
When doctors discover the boy's heart murmur, mother and son go to a spa. He loves being "sick" and waited on. Mother and fragile, sensitive son share a delicious and rebellious complicity. At first, she calls him a "French middle-class scandal-monger." Eventually she tells him the deeper secrets of her marital unease with his father.
The boy becomes her tender and loving and tolerant confidante. And then, one defenseless night, his mother completes the sexual initiation that was aborted earlier by the intrusive and animal high spirits of his brothers.
One of the things that still impresses about this ultra-Gallic roundelay about sex-as-bourgeois rebellion is that it's one of the few films that ever understood how much joyous self-proclamation there is in the music of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker rather than degradation and sorrow.
It was Malle's eighth film but, at the time, he said it might as well be "his first." Seeing it again 18 years later, you know exactly what he means.