LOUIS MALLE FEATURE
e n’est pas un pipe’ reads Louis Malle’s knitted sweater, complete with Magritte’s picture of what is, of course. a pipe. With a similarly intellectual twist of mind, cinema- goers faced with Malle’s latest work — a rendering on screen of André Gregory’s
‘undress rehearsal’ production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya — could very well point their ﬁngers and say. ‘Ce n’est pas un ﬁlm’. Several years ago. acclaimed New York-based stage director Gregory assembled a cast. headed by Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore. which met at irregular intervals to run through David Mamet’s translation of the Chekhov classic. The actors performed in their street clothes. there were no painth backdrops. no samovars on the table. Over a period of four years, the play became a talking point at the dinner tables of the New York intelligentsia. but only a select few were invited to see it performed. A close friend of the director, Malle was fascinated by Gregory’s approach and was keen to transfer his efforts onto celluloid.
‘What was striking in the work they had done on their Vanya was to show the modernity of the play and how contemporary Chekhov was.’ enthuses the 62-year-old Malle. ‘They had worked such a long time on their characters. and they’d been thinking about them and deepening their relationships with them. They would reach a clarity and emotion in their interpretations. It’s completely unusual for a filtn director to deal with actors who have spent four years struggling with their characters.’
If he was happy to have the actors’ performances fit him snugly off the peg. and if Gregory had already defined this production’s well-crafted sense of informality. what exactly did Malle contribute as a filmmaker? As Act One begins to unfold. it becomes clear. however, that Vanya on 42nd Street is not simply a case of a live stage production captured on film in a single shooting. What began as a theatrical experiment is now a cinematic experiment.
‘The fact that l was putting a camera in front of them meant I was altering everythinU.’ says Malle. ‘I thought I was putting them through a series of moments of truth. It was all shot with one camera; we were usually shooting long takes. but I knew that. from this particular angle, 1 was interested in this particular moment. It was easier for them and for me to start earlier so they would have time to warm up and come to this moment a few minutes later. Sometimes it modified their behaviour. and sometimes we would have to tell them. In many ways. it altered their performance in a good sense: it gave it more intensity and concentration and. if anything. more simplicity. By eliminating anything that was too theatrical. you gain in interiority and power.’
As the film begins. we see the cast assemble. we glance around the messy performance space (with a hand-held camera for our eyes) like a nosy visitor. The ﬁrst lines are spoken, and the audience is likely to remain detached from the play as. despite the undoubted intimacy that close camerawork allows. there is a strange juxtaposition of classical text and everyday clothing. classical text and naturalistic delivery in a markedly American manner. And yet, even while one part of the brain focuses on the project’s intellectual concerns — the way it masterfully strips drama of its trappings to concentrate on people. their words and relationships — Chekhov begins to take over.
Cineastes may grumble, but with such uniformly excellent performances placed within such a bold directorial concept. it’s unlikely that a work like this — as absorbing as it is challenging — will be seen on a Scottish stage for a very long time. .
Ever since Malle had teamed up with Shawn and Gregory in 1981 for the equally unique My Dinner with André (an apparently improvised restaurant conversation between the two men. which was actually finely scripted by Shawn and had them playing character variatibns on themselves). he had been searching for the right project to bring them together again. Both My Dinner with André and Vanya on 42nd Street reveal Malle to be a ﬁlmmaker who, at times, consciously strives for intellectual acceptance. This too was the case early in his career, when popular hits with Lift to the Scaffold and Les Amants caused him to change tack to the formally experimental Zazie darts Ie Metro, thereby keeping him abreast with the more artistic concerns of his nouvelle vague peers. In fact. to assess any of Malle’s movies properly, it is necessary to examine the work that immediately preceded it. as his choice of project . is frequently a personal rebellion at the style or content of what has tnost recently ﬁlled his
creative life. Q r,
Malle is a filmmaker who is unafraid to tackle the most controversial sublects - adultery, incest, child prostitution, war-time collaboration, racism, even Tory sleaze.
This quality of unpredictability — which has brought a few failures as well as critical successes — was clear when Malle made the move from his native France to America at the end of the I970s. ‘I had already tried to work on something in New Orleans about the origins of jazz, and at that time had fallen upon several stories, one of which was about this old woman remembering her life as the daughter of a prostitute in the New Orleans Storyville whorehouses.’ he says of Pretty Baby, which controversially cast Brooke Shields as the child prostitute. ‘I came to America because I had to shoot it in New Orleans. I couldn’t shoot it anywhere else. and it had to be in English. In my mind. I was just going to make that ﬁlm and go back to Europe. I had no intention of settling down in the States. But I made a two-picture deal with Paramount Pictures, so I made Pretty Baby and then Atlantic City for them.’
The Oscar nominations garnered by Atlantic City — Best Director, Film. Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Burt Lancaster as a smalltime hood finally coming into his own) and Actress (Susan Sarandon as the young neighbour with whom he falls in love) — ensured that Malle could havel had a Hollywood career if he had wanted it. Instead. be swapped coasts and made the cerebral My Dinner with Andre’. Having won great acclaim for this, he followed it with one of
his most obvious mistakes, the caper comedy Crackers. One other American movie — Alamo Bay, which dealt with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan against Vietnamese immigrants - was made before he returned to France for his most cherished and personal project, the semi- autobiographical Au Revoir Les Enfants.
This very moving piece, set during the Occupation in a Catholic boarding school where a Jewish boy is being hidden by the priest in charge, reveals several details about Malle’s childhood. Born in October 1932, in Thumeries in the industrial north of France. the young Malle had a comfortable bourgeois upbringing as the son of the owners of the town’s largest factory. He then studied at the Sorbonne before going to ﬁlm school, only to abandon this path in favour of working for three years on the Calypso with Jacques Costeau. His ﬁrst ﬁlm, co-directed with Costeau, was Le Monde du Silence, which thrust the 23-year~old into the spotlight when it won the Palme D’Or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. Moving to drama with Lift to the Scaffold and Les Amants also brought him prestige (and made a star ofJeanne Moreau in the process), and soon he found himself grouped with other. more radical ﬁlmmakers of his generation Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol — the New Wave.
‘I felt I was only at the beginning.‘ he admits, looking back on those early days from the comfort of London’s Savoy Hotel. ‘and I felt I had yet to learn everything. because it’s a very difﬁcult medium. Those days were wonderful because ﬁlms were fairly inexpensive and television was nothing. We were the nouvelle vague, we were like the kings of Paris. we were
' great cultural heroes through the 603. It was a
period of great enthusiasm and great fun and great energy. And then that culminated with 1968 (the French strikes and student demonstrations), but I had already decided that this was not going to last forever. I needed to go back to my roots. and that’s when I went to India for almost a year and sort of dropped out for a while.’
Malle’s Indian trip spawned the documentary Calcutta and the Phantom India series. In fact, at various times when he has felt the need to refresh his talents, it’s the documentary format he has turned to. Here is another indication of the need for diversity that drives his creativity, although this area of his work is virtually unknown outside France. It is this diversity that infuriates those searching for the auteur, but which equally intrigues his supporters. Certain themes do run clearly through his work, whether in English or French, comedy or drama — anti- clericism, satire of the bourgeoisie. passions that burst beyond society’s laws.
Malle is also a filmmaker who is unafraid to tackle the most controversial subjects — adultery (Les Amants). incest (Murmur of the Heart), child prostitution (Pretty Baby). war-time collaboration (Lacombe, Lucien), racism (Alamo Bay), even Tory sleaze (Damage). Sometimes the satire is biting. sometimes the intention is to deﬂate through comedy, sometimes he misses the target completely. But unlike the vast majority of directors of such international stature, Louis Malle has never lost the desire to challenge himselfand his audience. His successes are unassailable; but even his failures are fascinating, if only because they had the courage to be different.
Vanya on 42nd Street opens at the Cameo, Edinburgh, on Friday 13 January.
The List 13—26 January I995 9