- The Washington Times - Friday, November 25, 2005

Louis Malle did an impressive job of eluding a predictable cine- matic identity. That productive hide-and-seek act sustained a professional career that lasted more than 40 years.

Mr. Malle, who died in 1995 at the age of 63, is the subject of an ambitious retrospective being shared over the next several weeks by the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, the National Gallery of Art and La Maison Francaise, residence of the French Embassy.

The director was born into a prosperous French industrial family. Sent to Jesuit schools as a boy (part of this experience informed his most honored movie, “Au Revoir les Enfants,” in 1988), he graduated from the Sorbonne with a political science degree.

Two years at IDHEC, the national film school, prepared him for prestigious jobs as a young assistant and eventual co-director for Jacques-Yves Cousteau on “The Silent World,” the granddaddy of all current oceanographic documentaries. He also was an assistant for Robert Bresson on “A Man Escaped,” still the most austerely suspenseful and impressive of prison-escape chronicles.

Mr. Malle shot his first theatrical feature, the recently revived crime thriller “Elevator to the Gallows,” in 1957. He was a successful newcomer to the French movie industry before the breakthrough of the former critics and journalists lionized as part of a new wave.

That’s probably one reason why their mystique never fazed him. He even beat the crowd to a fashionable international hit with the portentous erotic fable “The Lovers” (1958), which confirmed Jeanne Moreau as the screen’s moodiest adulteress.

If he had continued in the same vein, Mr. Malle might have been pigeonholed as a specialist in ominous and fatalistic pulp. Instead, a curiously versatile, zigzagging Louis Malle emerged from the 1960s. His first fakeout was a colloquial throwback to protean slapstick farce, “Zazie dans le Metro.”

Derived from a Raymond Queneau novel, it blithely mocked all things Parisian while doing the town with a cynical, foulmouthed little girl entrusted with her uncle (Philippe Noiret as a supposed female impersonator) for three days. Booked tonight at 9:20 at the AFI Silver, “Zazie” is more inventive than satisfying. Its profusion of gags can wear you down, although the running time is a sprint of 88 minutes.

The director followed “Zazie” with a romantic melodrama showcasing Brigitte Bardot, “A Very Private Affair,” presumably drawn from her own rise to stardom. He kept the public and critics off-balance by becoming sober and heartfelt in “The Fire Within.” Then he donned his ringmaster guise again for a costume romp that co-starred Miss Bardot and Miss Moreau, “Viva Maria!” His last fictional project of the decade, “The Thief of Paris,” with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Genevieve Bujold as a romantic match, tried to synthesize lush period evocation with serious character analysis.

Mr. Malle himself closed the decade with a trip to India that resulted in two stunning documentary chronicles in the early 1970s, the feature-length “Calcutta” and the seven-part epic “Phantom India.” Originally telecast in Europe, the latter became an art-house phenom at the Inner Circle in Washington in the fall of 1972. It will be shown in three parts at the National Gallery on successive weekends (Dec. 1-2, 8-9 and 15-16) and also at La Maison Francaise on Dec. 1, 6 and 15.

I admired several Malle films, especially the Indian documentaries and his 1974 eye-opener “Lacombe, Lucien,” which took a clinically harrowing look at a peasant teenager who sleepwalks into the service of Nazi collaborators in the summer of 1944.

Still, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the man in person. He came to town to promote his first American movie, “Pretty Baby.” A strangely disarming account of mother-daughter rivalry in a vintage New Orleans brothel, it was entering release under clouds of misapprehension provoked by the casting of Brooke Shields, an all too rapturous camera subject at the age of 12.

Louis Malle’s American sojourn was destined to result in a couple of eccentrically satisfying films of the 1980s, “Atlantic City” and “My Dinner With Andre” (showing today at 12:30 and 3 p.m. at the National Gallery) and marriage to Candice Bergen. Encountered on the run in 1978, he proved a self-deprecating charmer — the engaging, three-dimensional counterpart of the narrative voice that had been so astute, ruminative and attractive on the soundtrack of “Phantom India.”

Mr. Malle liked to pace while he mused. He disavowed all tendencies to jump to conclusions about the United States. “After two years here,” he said, “I’m totally incapable of generalizations. This is not typical of the French. They like to generalize, and French journalists are the most pompous. They get off the plane in New York and already they know everything wrong with America.”

Mr. Malle planned to stick around. “I like the country very much,” he remarked, “but I’m not sure what I’ll be doing next. I find it difficult to make plans. Each time I’ve committed myself to a movie far in advance, it turns out to be a disaster.”

He considered it probable that he was temperamentally ill-suited to a movie career. “Basically, I hate to make decisions,” he said. “Since directing a picture means making decisions every ten seconds, there’s an obvious contradiction. I think of the script as a rough blueprint and like to change things as the shooting proceeds. Also, each picture changes you. Or should change you.”

Despite his own changes of subject matter and style, Louis Malle did backtrack to certain things: youthful protagonists, the occupation years, documentary expeditions, eroticism, restless or troubled psyches and (once in America) collaborators who also were men of the theater.

The AFI Silver is hosting most of the fictional films, starting with French titles and shifting to the English-language output in mid-December. With the exception of “Andre,” arguably a semidocumentary theater piece, the documentaries have been reserved for the National Gallery and La Maison Francaise. Because the DVD sector has been neglecting Louis Malle, these revivals should be welcome and revealing.

EVENT: “Risks and Invention: The Cinema of Louis Malle”

CONTENT: Career retrospective of the late French filmmaker

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre at 8633 Colesville Road in Silver Spring; National Gallery of Art, East Building Auditorium, at Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW; La Maison Francaise, the Embassy of France, at 4101 Reservoir Road NW

WHEN: Selected programs today through Jan. 10 at the AFI Silver; weekend programs today through Dec. 15 at the National Gallery; episodes of the seven-part documentary epic “Phantom India” on Dec. 1, 6 and 15 at La Maison Francaise

ADMISSION: At the AFI Silver, $9.25 for the general public and $7.50 for members, students or seniors (65 and older); free at the National Gallery; $5 at La Maison

PHONE: 301/495-6720 for the AFI; 202/842-6799 for the National Gallery; 202/944-6091 for La Maison Francaise

WEB SITES: www.afi.com/silver and www.nga.gov

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