The forty-five-year-old French filmmaker Louis Malle once made the fascinating suggestion that a director’s unrealized projects are as important as the films he has already shot, bringing about — as they do — the evolution of an oeuvre. And it is one of Malle’s as yet unrealized projects — a version of Robinson Crusoe — that gives a key to the personality of a director whose eclectic and often neglected body of work places him among the significant creators of modern French cinema.
Like Crusoe, Louis Malle’s original sin was that he didn’t want to go into his family’s business, and he ran away to sea. After a short spell in film school, Malle joined up as an assistant to Jacques-Yves Cousteau in 1952, becoming, according to Cousteau, one of the most talented underwater cinematographers in the world, and collaborating with him as codirector on The Silent World (1956).
Malle’s first independent feature was Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (1957) — released in English-speaking countries under the alternate titles Elevator to the Gallows and Frantic — an ironic film noir featuring a wonderful jazz score by Miles Davis, marvelous soft-focus cinematography by Henri Decaë, and starring Jeanne Moreau as a woman who arranges with her aging war-hero lover to murder her husband.
Next came The Lovers (1958) — again starring Jeanne Moreau, as an adulterous provincial wife whose first-night affair with a younger man in a moonlit garden (with intimations of then-shocking oral sex) and escape from a stultifying marriage is played off against the overintoxicated romanticism of its brilliantly chosen musical score, Brahms’ Sextet in B-flat Major — a score which ironically undercuts and teases the notion of romantic love itself. (These subtleties obviously washed right over the head of a judge in Cleveland who, in 1960, sentenced a distributor of the film to a short spell in jail.)
Zazie in the Metro (1960) was Malle’s dazzling, speedy, Mack Sennett-type adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s novel about a wide-eyed foul-mouthed eleven-year-old girl who comes to visit her drag-queen uncle in Paris. Filled with film parodies, sight gags, slapstick and black humor, and concluding with an episode of apocalyptic, fascistic violence in a cafe, Zazie foreshadowed Richard Lester’s later frenetic films, while it gave us the first of Malle’s many depictions of innocent but tough-minded children.
After the flaccid A Very Private Affair (1961) starring Brigitte Bardot, Malle made one of his greatest works — Le Feu Follet (The Fire Within — 1963). A spare, intense, black-and-white portrait of the last forty-eight hours of a dissolute, suicidal playboy, Malle’s film is based on a novel written in the Thirties by the French Fascist and collaborator Drieu de la Rochelle — a book which itself is based on the last two days of the surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut. (Both Rigaut and, eventually, Drieu committed suicide.)
After making Vive le Tour (1964) — a lively twenty-minute documentary about the exhausting Tour de France bicycle race — and Viva Maria (1965) — a light and inconsequential lampoon on action pictures starring Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot as showgirls caught in the middle of a Latin American revolution — Malle came up with another inspired work — Le Voleur (The Thief of Paris — 1966) starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as a wily, anarchistic, upper-class outlaw who steals from the rich while revealing the hypocrisies and corruption of bourgeois society.
During the past ten years, Malle has made a series of films on India (the seven-part Phantom India — 1967, and Calcutta — 1969) in which he himself acts as narrator, commenting as a befuddled and awed Westerner on a country he often can hardly fathom; Murmur of the Heart (1971), an exquisite story of the childhood of a young, upper-middle-class French boy (much like Malle himself) and of this boy’s seduction by his mother — all to the music of Charlie Parker; two documentaries made in 1973: Humain Trop Humain (Human, Too Human) — Malle’s most experimental film, which eschews all commentary, about the workers at a Citroën automobile assembly plant — and Place de la République, which features interviews with people on the street; Lacombe, Lucien (1974), perhaps Malle’s most popular film, about a seventeen-year-old peasant boy who becomes a Nazi collaborator; and Black Moon (1975), a quasi-fairy tale about a young woman, fleeing from a futuristic was, who visits a country house and its odd inhabitants.
Pretty Baby is Louis Malle’s first American movie. Written by Polly Platt and based loosely on AI Rose’s book Storyville, the film draws very loosely on the character of the famous bordello photographer E.J. Bellocq — whose physical bearing (short physique and enormous misshapen head) is hardly suggested by the film’s leading and handsome actor, Keith Carradine — and portrays his fictional affair with and marriage to a twelve-year-old daughter of a prostitute, raised in the brothels.
Set in 1917 New Orleans — with the music of Jelly Roll Morton and other composers of that period played by Bob Greene and the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra — Pretty Baby has been touted as a “naughty” movie. And its heroine, Brooke Shields — the beautiful twelve-year-old model who plays Violet — has become the object of an enormous amount of media attention, as if this child with a woman’s face were some kind of prepubescent Baby Doll. In fact, she gives an extraordinary — and extraordinarily chaste and controlled — performance. But for anyone who know Malle’s previous work, this will hardly come as a surprise.
As in all of his movies, Malle exhibits in Pretty Baby his characteristically detached, skeptical, lucid, moral — not moralistic — attitude toward life (“I want to be respectable,” says Violet’s mother, Hattie, excellently portrayed by Susan Sarandon, to which someone replies: “It’s those respectable people who are lying on top of you every night”) — an attitude that colors and unifies Malle’s variegated body of work.
He exemplifies and reveals this attitude by means of his and editor Suzanne Baron’s transparent, seemingly effortless and controlled, slowpaced editing; the radiant, postimpressionisticcolored cinematography of Sven Nykvist; and by the director’s own mastery in manipulating genre expectations. (The film, for example, opens with what sounds like a woman making love, but which turns out to be Violet’s mother giving birth in an upstairs room to the brother, while her daughter calmly observes the scene, goes downstairs to inform everybody of the news, and thereby introduces us to the cast of characters.)
The one weak link in Pretty Baby is the characterization of Bellocq, whom the film defines as a shy, passive man, obsessed more with photography than with love (“It’s magic,” he says about the former, “and it only takes one second”). As Bellocq, Keith Carradine is passionless instead of detached, fixated instead of obsessed. Perhaps someone like David Carradine would have been a better choice for the part…. and I would have preferred seeing limits Malle himself playing the role — thereby illuminating the relationships between director and actress, photographer and model, man and child.
But weak link or no, Malle’s irrevocable commitment to his moral vision — as he discusses it in the following interview — along with his love of New Orleans jazz that accompanies and parallels this vision (“Jazz is my childhood,” he told me; “I heard ‘Mamie’s Blues’ — the song which ends the movie — when I was fifteen”) combine to make Pretty Baby an enlightening and important movie.
It’s interesting that your films — even when they deal with subjects like an illicit affair (The Lovers) or incest (Murmur of the Heart) or a twisted fairy tale (Black Moon) or child prostitution (Pretty Baby) — are all very chaste.
Ever since The Lovers, I’ve always tried to avoid fucking scenes in my movies because I find them boring, difficult and embarrassing to shoot and to watch. For me it’s practically impossible. I mean, whether you do it or simulate it, you have to repeat it, you have to have ten people around — you have to tell the actors that they’re not in exactly the right place for the light…. It’s extremely boring and it seems to me that it practically never works — to me the exception is Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses.
I remember the days when the code in Hollywood was very strict and when you had comedies like Pillow Talk, which were the most obscene pictures ever made, without showing anything on the screen. They all revolved around sex, in a very matter-of-fact and obvious kind of way, but of course there wasn’t one explicit scene in any of them. If you have to deal with sex, films like Pillow Talk are a lot more interesting.
So you’re against pornography on aesthetic rather than on moralistic grounds?
Yes, I’ve nothing against it on moralistic grounds at all, it’s just that it’s much more interesting to steal the imagination of spectators by not showing the thing. If we try to go a little deeper, there’s something intensely private about sex — even if you indulge in orgies it has nothing to do with that — but there’s something so… it seems to me it’s never really worked on a stage, as a performance — and God knows that throughout civilization it’s many times become a performance, usually in periods of decadence — but it never really works. It would be interesting to discuss the real explanation: it certainly has to do with aesthetics, and also with the act itself.
Perhaps modesty has something to do with it.
It certainly does. Take Murmur of the Heart: there was no way for me to escape from, at some point, showing that this boy and his mother were making love; if not, there was no movie. Which was extremely difficult for many reasons, especially because the actress who played the mother and the actor who played her son hated each other [laughter]. For a director it was a very difficult situation. I ended up with close-ups of two faces, but obviously the actors had to pretend to some kind of simulation of a sexual act… and I hated to do it… because everybody was very embarrassed. And they were probably embarrassed mainly because of the fakeness of it.
The result was an almost “charming” encounter — just the opposite of an anguished Freudian revelation of a trauma: René Clair instead of Ingmar Bergman.
That’s what I wanted. Actually it worked… with a lot of problems, but it worked. You see, there’s no guilt. One of the key pieces of dialogue in the movie occurs after the events of that night, and the mother talks to the boy and tells him he mustn’t be ashamed of it. In our culture, it’s considered obligatory that sex and guilt come together, which is not necessarily true, although you know, in the script for Murmur of the Heart, I did have some traces of guilt, even unconsciously. In the film, after the boy’s been with his mother, she goes to sleep and he leaves the room, goes downstairs and fucks the little girl he’s been courting for the past two weeks. In the script, however, he went to the bathroom, took the razor blade and started playing with his wrists… and that’s how I first shot it. The idea was to be ironical — I wanted to be ironical about this obligatory guilt feeling. It was interesting, but it just didn’t work. And it didn’t work because the boy who played the part didn’t like the scene, he didn’t want to do it and he didn’t do it well.
There are obvious limits to what a director can do when there’s something that bothers an actor — especially a nonprofessional one — about a scene or a situation or some piece of dialogue. You’re going to be in trouble, so you’d better change it, and that’s what I did. But there was a lot more guilt involved in the first draft of my script.
Why did you make Murmur of the Heart?
Well, I was working on an unfinished book by Georges Bataille called My Mother, which is really a book about incest — very, very erotic, very full of guilt. I worked on it for several months, but wasn’t pleased with it… I couldn’t cope with it, it was much too heavy. And so finally I went to my house in the country, and in the meantime all kinds of memories of childhood came back to me — very personal stuff — and what happened is that one day I started writing and worked for about five days practically nonstop and got to the end of a long treatment with absolutely no plan, no structure. It was a plot based on my own childhood memories, but very much transposed. And then I fought with it for about two months, trying to change it, because I didn’t think it could come forth just like that. But, practically, the picture resembles the initial movement — that surge of things coming out as a story.
What was it your mother said about the film after the saw it?
Well, my mother’s a little crazy, so she said that it brought back so many things to her, which is true, there are so many things from my past in it — the Italian nanny and the three brothers and everything we did. And I did have a heart murmur–it all happened to me. The only vast difference is that I didn’t sleep with my mother — maybe I should have, but I didn’t — and also the characterization of the mother in the film is very different from my mother in real life. Actually, I took it from a friend of mine, a Brazilian woman who, at the time, was having a sort of incredible flirtation with her son. She was very extroverted, very crazy, very warm, very Latin, living in a very stiff, French bourgeois family…and that’s where I got the idea. Lots of people told me I was a coward for not portraying the mother as a Frenchwoman, but I just loved the idea of somebody who couldn’t, even it she’d been there for fifteen years or twenty years, really adjust to the French ways of being a bourgeoise.
What makes films like Murmur of the Heart and Pretty Baby so enticing is that the characters in them are so charming while their relationships are so provocative.
Yes, it’s only the proposition that’s shocking, and that’s what I like. When Murmur of the Heart opened on the Champs Elysées, people coming out of the theater were under the charm of it, but at the same time they did sort of a double take on it, and they’d stop and say, “My God, What did I see?” It’s like forcing people to think about incest — why do we have to put such an incredible weight on it, why has it become such an incredibly heavy taboo? You get all the biological and cultural reasons, there are all kinds of explanations for the taboo. But even today you find out that there’s a lot more incest than is reported.
What if you had made a film about a father who was sleeping with his daughter?
It would have been an easier proposition: we live in a male-dominated culture, and father-daughter incest is considered less reprehensible than the mother-son kind.
In many peasant families, it’s almost a tradition that the father have his daughter’s virginity. These stories often make people laugh, it’s that machismo type of value system which makes people accept the situation of the man and the girl instead of the woman and the boy: the latter is considered a capital sin. And when I’ve discussed this with so-called sexologists — usually horrible people — they always insist on the fact that there are very few mother-son incestuous relationships. But I think one of the reasons is that it’s not reported — it’s such a strong taboo that nobody talks about it.
What about Pretty Baby, with the relationships between the older men and younger girl?
I didn’t play around with that too much because I was trying to keep away from the Lolita syndrome. It’s mostly about what was going on in Storyville in those days when there were a lot of young girls and young boys who were raised in the whorehouses. They’d start to work when they were eight-year-olds, and then there’d be a time when the madam would think they’d be ready for the big step and would sell their virginity. In the movie it’s an auction scene, which was quite common.
What led you to this subject?
I’ve always wanted to deal with child prostitution, it’s something that I’ve had in mind for ten years — in the same way that, for a long time, I wanted to do Lacombe, Lucien, in which somebody from the lumpen proletariat becomes a betrayer and a collaborator. I was interested in how this works, in how one becomes a Fascist. I’d been thinking about the French-Algerian war, and later I even thought of developing the theme of Lacombe, Lucien and making the film in America during the Vietnam War.
At one point I wanted to do Pretty Baby in Genoa or Naples where prostitution is very big, as it always has been — just as it is in New Orleans today, if I may say so. But child prostitution has always been big in Latin and tropical countries. It’s more obvious there because if you’re closer to the sun, you mature earlier… it’s probably a very simple physical rule.
In our story, the photographer Bellocq marries Violet, the little girl. The red-light district is closed, her mother has left and she has no place to go — I’m not trying to say that Bellocq does it just to save Violet, it’s also because he loves her — so he comes to her and says, I’m going to marry you, and she says yes, and they get married. And I know that all kinds of people are going to find it at first shocking and then impossible …but did you know that until 1948 in Louisiana, a girl could marry at twelve and a boy at fourteen? A lot of Louisiana law comes from the Napoleonic Code.
Are you more interested in the subject as sociological phenomenon or sexual fantasy?
Well I think it’s very much of a sexual fantasy. As a sociological phenomenon it comes from a sexual fantasy and then enters the industrial world. Just walk a few blocks from where we’re talking right now [Times Square].
What about child marriages in countries like India?
When societies are very stiff and social structures are very strong and very rigid, you end up with child marriages — which doesn’t necessarily mean that the sexual act is going to be performed or consummated. But there are also all the Jorge Amado novels depicting whorehouses with young children, whether they be boys or girls. In Africa, it’s almost a constant that prostitutes are extremely young. There are many poor Arabian village girls who used to prostitute themselves from the ages of twelve to eighteen in order to get money for a dowry and a good marriage.
I’m not going to play the game of going to the defense of prostitution — but it’s interesting that it’s always been there, and even today a lot of people are just now discovering with horror the fact of child prostitution. And that’s the way the media is building it. Just the other day the New York Times had a front-page story about an eleven-year-old black girl who was supposedly thrown out of a window by a pimp. The police withheld the information for six months… and I recently read an article that says it’s also taking place in Russia today. Nobody asks the real question, which is why these middle-class kids or lower-middle-class kids or black kids from all those suburban families drop out and come to New York City. The answer is that children in this society… I don’t want to generalize, but they’re so unhappy and there’s such denial that they would do anything to get away. And then there are all those stories about the pimps being like their substitute fathers, taking care of them and being nice to them, and they find an acceptable family.
Don’t you think that one of the explanations for this has to do with a displacement of the father-daughter incest fantasy?
I think it’s one of the good explanations, one of several. There’s something else, too: how many times have you heard the story of a twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl being raped by her stepfather? I could name five or six friends it supposedly happened to or could have happened to. And I think this has to do with the fantasy of rape and violence, because a child is defenseless. It has to do with purity and innocence. It’s a very strong fantasy, and certainly the fantasy also has to do with incest, and also with the impulse to destroy — to sully. What is that obsession of so many men with virginity?
Look at Buñuel’s films.
And what about Bresson? I know how he chooses his heroines because I’ve worked with him: they’re usually fifteen years old, they’re very bourgeois types — Dominique Sanda being the archetype when she started… She’s older now and she’s lived a little. Anne Wiazemsky. They all look alike and talk alike and…[laughing] I’m talking about my old master, I shouldn’t say that, but it’s so obviously his own fantasy that he expresses in film.
But I want to make the point right away that in my film, you know, I’m not expressing my fantasy when I’m dealing with child prostitution, because actually I’m not sexually… Let me tell you the truth, I’m not sexually titillated by children. Let’s say there’s something of a voyeur in Buñuel, obviously…Well, to me it’s exactly the opposite. I’ve many times made films about adolescents dealing with adults, and I’ve always tried to put my camera exactly the other way…I’m always trying to have the children look at the adults. It’s true in Pretty Baby, just as it was in Murmur of the Heart and Lacombe, Lucien… and also when I was shooting many scenes of Phantom India — that’s where I found it, the trick I’ve been using since, of having people look at the camera. You come to see them, but they look at you. And in Pretty Baby you have those shots of Violet looking at you. That’s my point, because in this disordered and decadent period in which we live it’s fascinating to watch people who are coming of age having to deal with this world of hypocrisy and preconceived values and having nothing to do with any of it. They’re just there because they’ve always been there, and just their look is a judgment. If there’s anything moral in my pictures, you have to find it in the close-ups of those children in my films looking at you. That’s where it is, there’s nothing else.
In your film The Thief of Paris, one of the characters says: “Thieves are the moonlight of honest men.” And in Pretty Baby, as in your other movies, children or characters who keep a childlike perspective seem to be the sunlight of “honest men” — lighting up the hypocrisies of their society.
Okay, let’s go back to The Lovers, which is a long way back. In that film you have this very conventional woman and, suddenly, practically by accident, she discovers that all the values that she’s been living with are totally absurd. She’s a woman — she’s not a child, she’s not an adolescent — so she does something absolutely extravagant: she runs away with somebody she’s met the night before, which in those days was very much of a scandal. I remember one scene that really shocked people — the distributors asked me to cut it. It was when she leaving the house at dawn and she went to her daughter’s bed and said goodbye to her. And they all told me: “You’re going to antagonize everybody, why don’t you cut that scene out? Let’s forget the child.” But that’s what made it so interesting, that was the really shocking proposition in The Lovers: that she had a child and that she would leave anyway.
In Pretty Baby it’s reversed — Violet comes in the morning to see her mother in bed with a john.
That’s where Pretty Baby is stronger. But my next example would be Zazie in the Metro, in which, for the first time, I was dealing with a child who came to Paris for forty-eight hours and suddenly discovered a world which was total chaos — all the adults crazy, fucked up, totally ambiguous (the uncle was a transvestite), and she was just standing there, watching and watching.
Next, The Fire Within was a variation: here was a man, thirty years old, who always behaved like an adolescent, then realized that he was getting older and had to become an adult, and he refused to become an adult and decided to kill himself. And then you have The Thief of Paris, where this man decides to drop out in this very neat and cold way because he realizes that his uncle is a crook.
Black Moon is all about the fantasy world of a child who’s also going to enter the world of adulthood and is very frightened. There are rites of puberty that are seen in a sort of dream. This child is projecting her fantasies and building a world of her own which starts realistically with a war, and she runs away and enters this empty house with an old witch and weird characters — it’s as if everything was invented by her, every scene was a step further into her own fantasy. But it was basically about the emotions and the troubles of having to enter that world and become an adult.
I think that in most of my films the central character is someone who stands at the brink of corruption. It’s the moment when you realize that in order to become an adult you have to accept corruption and become a part of it. And that’s the moment when you’re very strong and very disturbing because you’re telling the truth.
Pretty Baby is more interesting to me because it’s a totally immoral situation. You start with the whorehouse — the house of sin — and you have a child who’s born there and trains to be a whore and becomes one when she’s twelve years old. And at the same time she’s the only one who knows what she’s doing, she’s the only one who’s got integrity. Everybody else is very confused and ambiguous and is playing the rules of the game. It’s like a microcosm of our world.
It’s interesting that the two French directors who continually associate the idea of integrity with that of childhood are you and Truffaut. In films like The Mischief Makers, The 400 Blows and The Wild Child, Truffaut evokes the strength of childhood, while in films like Soft Skin and Two English Girls he shows what happens when people lose touch with the childlike part of themselves.
You’re at the very center of something here. Let’s say that I’m probably a little more timid than Truffaut, but we’re probably closer to each other than most people would believe. Our approaches and methods, however, are definitely opposite. Truffaut always does the same film, in a way; he gives the feeling that he’s dealing with the same characters — which doesn’t mean that he hasn’t got lots of nuances.
I don’t know how to express this without getting into something very intimate: I’ve tried to spread my range of experiences, both in life and in my work, as much as possible — which is maybe wrong, I don’t know. Anyway, it probably has made my life more interesting and maybe my work less interesting. Instead of always digging the same hole, I’ve been trying to take different roads, use different techniques and remain open. I’ve always been very curious about people and about myself.
I’ve been trying to get rid of questions by dealing with them as films — that’s how I’ve dealt with suicide, for example, in The Fire Within. But frankly, I must tell you that I enjoy tremendously having critics, every time they go to see a new film of mine, not knowing what to expect, because I’m always changing.
There’s a famous old saying about the hedgehog and the fox — the former knowing one good trick, the latter having many of them. You certainly seem to be playing the fox role.
Think of the protean character in Zazie — the man who is ever changing, the policeman, the lover who ends up in the subway punching tickets, who says: “I’m trying everything,” to which another guy says: “Well, you’re trying everything because you haven’t found it.” So maybe it just takes me a little while — a little while for me is a lot of time! — to find out. Maybe I’ll find out when I’m just about to die. If I have a philosophy of life, it’s that you should be ever changing until you’ve found what you have to find, and when you’ve found that, you should die.
I feel very strongly that if I started to make the same film twice I would be mentally in trouble — that I was getting old or bored, and that it certainly wouldn’t work — so there’s something experimental about my work.
In Montaigne, the word “essay” has the meaning of” assay” — the ideas of “experience” and “experiment” are both communicated by the French word “expérience” — and your films seem to share this double-edged definition.
I thank you for noticing it because I consider myself a child of Montaigne, I’ve been very much under his influence. Strongly. He expressed a perpetual doubt about everything, which I think a very stimulating attitude. And it’s interesting that he came to be such a strong figure since there’s actually nothing that brilliant or spectacular about Montaigne — he was a normal man leading a normal life. But what he expressed was something that I think is absolutely fundamental.
Like Montaigne, I can never be rhetorical because I’m fiercely opposed to any attempt to convince people with words. This is something that’s against my nature — words are most of the time terribly unimportant in my movies. I’m very ill at ease with words, and I don’t know how to cope with dialogue scenes, really. In Black Moon I was trying to express, in a very clumsy way, that language is a lot vaster than just spoken language. Or take Humain Trop Humain, my documentary about the car factory: very few people saw it, but it managed to start a lot of controversy. I remember an incredible discussion with French radical-left people who were at me, saying: “What are you trying to prove? You go into a factory, you shoot for three weeks and there’s not one word of commentary or interview in the picture. Aren’t you going to denounce, don’t you come to any conclusions?”
I couldn’t even answer, it seemed to me so absurd since the whole point was to show the fascination of an assembly line, of that kind of work. And the only comment that I put into the picture was at the very beginning when I used a Gregorian chant… which is a very simple way to say that there is something of a mass, something of a religious ceremony going on. In our civilization the automobile is like Molech — from the making of it to the selling of it to the killing with it. And to use words would have been absurd in the face of the slowmotion-fashioned fascination of that repetition, which is death — these people doing the same five gestures for eight hours a day for thirty years of their lives, which is the most atrocious thing you could do to a human being. And I would have felt like an idiot if I was going to inject political comments — “Vote for the Communist party.” You know, you have assembly lines in Russia, and all over the world.
Ideally, I’d like to provide a thesis and an antithesis, but not a synthesis, which has always been the self-indulgence of so many people. I would love a relationship with audiences such that they would get to the conclusion by themselves. In Pretty Baby we have a moral ending, right? Violet is saved from a life of lust and disorder, her mother takes her away from Bellocq, she’s going to get an education and live in a good family in St. Louis… and of course it’s a horrible ending, it’s very sad. But I don’t take sides, I like to show the audience something, but I’m very, very much against rhetorical statements.
It seems as if you present the obligatory moral ending but undermine the audience’s easy acceptance of it. Just like Diderot.
Yes, I love the Enlightenment writers — people like Diderot and Rousseau, even the boring ones like d’Alembert. Voltaire is very interesting… that smirk which was hiding a rage against this society. You have to consider that we’re referring to a period in which the structures of French society were so stiff, years and years of rigidity going back to the Middle Ages. And I feel a little bit the same today: everything is loose and free. But you have this weight of the media, especially of television — which is a huge brainwash — so that sometimes you get into an absolute rage and you really want to take off your trousers and walk naked just to get a reaction, because everything has been digested, including violence. It’s all taken care of, and that’s unbearable.
Did your family like the idea of your going into film?
They really reacted very violently against it — probably rightly so, I must say, when I think of it today. I mean the fact that they were so much against it helped me to get through it because it gave me a challenge. They wanted me to go into the family business, and to attend one of those famous French schools like the Polytechnique — it’s like going to Harvard Business School. Considering that my older brothers had sort of dropped out, all their hopes were on me [laughing].
I told my mother that I wanted to be a film director when I was thirteen. My father had an eight-millimeter camera, and I fooled around with it and started going to see a lot of films when I was very young.
Were there any films you saw that made an especially strong impression?
I saw a picture that almost nobody now remembers, made by a director named Roger Leenhardt. He was a critic, a documentary filmmaker, and he made this film in 1947 about a bourgeois family on a holiday, a first-love situation with very young people in it, and it was the first film that could be said to have announced the New Wave.
Then, of course, there was The Rules of the Game, one of the most inspired movies, in all its details, that I’ve ever seen. I was talking with Elia Kazan the other day, and he was saying that it’s the film he remembers with more pleasure than any other one. And I agree with that. I’ve seen it around fifteen times, and I’m not really a film freak, I spent much less time in the Cinémathéque than most of my friends.
I also remember seeing some very strange pictures, like the first Gatsby with Alan Ladd. The picture wasn’t very good and Alan Ladd wasn’t great, but in spite of that, something came across, and that’s how I started reading Scott Fitzgerald, by seeing that movie…. And then there was an Anthony Mann western I saw, Winchester ’73.
I saw a lot of American B movies, but you know, there’s one picture which I really thought was fantastic — I saw it ten years ago and thought it was holding up very well, it was very much in the Hollywood establishment tradition and got lots of awards — George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun. I was in cinema school at the time, and I saw it twenty times.
What did you like about it?
I thought the craftsmanship was extraordinary and very daring in many ways. I remember there was a long scene that was shot totally in the dark — it was Monty Cliff and I think Shelley Winters, who had just gone to see a doctor, and she came back and he was waiting for her in the car and she told him she was pregnant. The scene went on for two or three minutes, and you didn’t see anything, but it worked. I’d read An American Tragedy, so I thought the adaptation was interesting and I thought the use of the stars was extremely efficient. It was one of the best pictures I’d seen, even though it was never recognized by the Cahiers du Cinéma-type of critics. But I remember discussing the film with Alexandre Astruc — who was sort of the granddad of the New Wave and was a very close friend of mine and also one of these people who didn’t make a career but was very talented — and the first discussion we had one evening was about A Place in the Sun.
Pickpocket — one of my other favorite films — is a different story because I love Bresson’s movies, I’ve always been very interested in him and was his assistant on A Man Escaped. He was very much of a loner, and there was very little to do … most of the action in the film took place in a cell [laughing] with just a couple of prisoners.
With regard to Pickpocket, I wrote an article about it because the critics had killed the picture, and I was angry. The piece appeared in Art, and it took me a lot of time because I wasn’t and still am not really ready to write about film. It’s like writing about music or painting. I would rather paint about writing than write about painting because I’ve always been a little worried about words. I’ve always had a problem with abstractions — I don’t really believe in them, and my feelings about movies are very sensual. To me, being a spectator in the theater in the dark… first, you’re very much of a voyeur. And I’m aware of a feeling of touch and I can’t rationalize about a picture. And I have the same feeling with good novels, too — with Madame Bovary, for example, with its absolute perfection of writing, its subtle variations and depths of emotion, in the apparent coldness of the style. I’ve been a Flaubert freak since childhood — I remember I read Salammbô when I was twelve years old and was sick with a heart murmur and was supposed to be in bed. The sensuality of Salammbô and those descriptions of a very exotic world… I never recovered from it [laughter]. I remember being a little boy in bed in this bourgeois house, very warm and very protected from the outside world — suddenly Salammbô was like the outburst of old dreams. When literature is great it becomes sensual — it’s in the words.
At the 1977 New York Film Festival, I attended the press screening of the most recent Bresson picture, The Devil Probably, and I was sitting next to a young critic whom I didn’t know, and he was writing all the time, I got interested in when he was going to write, and eventually I knew when he was going to write. And I imagined that he had a very misconceived idea of what the film was about… probably thinking he should talk about ecology, about the old man’s vision of the world — everything that has to do with what Bresson worries about a lot, but which for me is very naive, very clichéd. What is fascinating about the film is that it looks like Pascal — it’s all about grace, about people with a gift for life, which is something divine … it’s a completely mystical film. When he deals with the news, it’s foolish. And I’m sure Bresson would agree with me. In an interview in a French newspaper, he said: “You know, it’s not a statement about the new generation — actually I was projecting some of my own memories about my childhood.”
It took me years to realize that you have to reinvent your childhood and be a better child than you were. As a protection we try to get rid of the way we approach the world when we’re children, and to tell you the truth — it sounds very corny — but it’s only when I got back to India that I started the very slow process of getting back to childhood. I remember I had a conversation in 1968 with Jane Fonda — that’s before she went into politics — and she was saying that, for her, it took ten years to find out about being young. She and I were different, but it was the same kind of pressure that we had to deal with — heavy family pressure that, in her case, came from being the daughter of Henry Fonda and, in my case, from being a son in a very wealthy, rigid family.
Let’s come back to Violet in Pretty Baby. As you were saying in the beginning of our discussion, if people are going to expect a racy portrait of a nymphet, they’re going to be disappointed. Compared to a film like Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Pretty Baby is chaste, slowly paced and nonmanipulative. And the ironical ending of the film isn’t going to satisfy a sentimental, moralistic audience.
Many people expect that if you make a film about child prostitution they’ll see a child in a corner of the room being beaten, in tears, they expect something schmaltzy, they expect to cry all the way through. But in Pretty Baby Violet is the toughest character of them all, and at the end she’s practically intact. And I had the same problem with Lacombe and with Murmur of the Heart because these are visions of adolescence which are not sentimental.
It was so interesting for me to see the response to the film of the twelve-year-old daughter of a friend of mine. She specifically identified with Violet; for her there was no problem at all. She wasn’t worried, and she thought the character was absolutely right…. There’s such a cliché about childhood. As I said before, most of my endings are the same in the sense that they’re all totally open and don’t conclude with a message. For instance, if you see Goodbar, you know at the very beginning that the heroine’s going to get murdered, she’s looking for it and she gets it. And it makes it perfectly satisfying from the point of morality. My endings are sort of fake moralistic endings, as in Murmur of the Heart: at the end the whole family’s assembled and everybody laughs. Which is total irony, considering that what’s happened is outrageous. And at the end of Lacombe, there’s just a caption saying that the boy eventually got caught was put on trial and was executed.
I once heard that Buñuel, after seeing the film, suggested to you that the caption not say that Lacombe had been executed but rather that he had become a prosperous shopkeeper in Spain.
Well, you know, I hesitated about the end of Lacombe. I changed the ending. The first print of the picture had no caption, was completely open. And then I thought that the general direction of the picture was to end up with society being on the top — which is exactly what happened at the end of Pretty Baby… things go back to normality, but it’s a very disturbing happy end. But also in Lacombe, what was very confusing about it, and possibly ambiguous, was that it was very difficult to have a judgment about this boy who had been committing the worst possible things and at the same time, in a way, had been innocent. And that’s the problem of evil, “the banality of evil.” I was really trying to make a point that, finally, society got him. Everybody should rejoice at the end of Lacombe and of Pretty Baby, because she’s saved, she’s going to have an education. But we know that, being so together and so tough, she’s going to give hell to this stupid family. That’s the implication.
But in Lolita, the irony is that the beroine turns into a typical all-American girl.
That gets to the core of what I want to say. Actually, that’s why my endings are open, because I don’t care about what’s going to happen. After all, in Lacombe, Lucien, what happens to this boy who is completely exploited, at the very bottom of French society? He has three months which are absolutely fabulous, this little farm boy, put down and stepped on all his life. All of a sudden he carries around a gun for three months, becomes king of this little town, entering houses and doing exactly what he wants. He has a summer. And the fact that he dies or doesn’t die — is or isn’t executed, becomes a successful shopkeeper or doesn’t — makes no difference. What’s going to happen to Violet in Pretty Baby is of no importance to the real story.
At the end of AI Rose’s book Storyville, on which the movie’s based, there is a series of interviews with old people who had been witnesses to and participants of Storyville. And there was an interview with this old lady who happened to be a middle-class grandmother, living in a suburb in Hattiesburg, or someplace like that. She had gotten married when she was eighteen years old to a guy who just had a regular job, and she remembered everything… and from the way she talked about it, obviously nothing more important had happened to her during the rest of her life. Everything happened in this very short moment of adolescence when she was a child prostitute. So whatever happens to Violet — whether after three months she comes back and becomes a prostitute again or stays at home, gets married and becomes respectable — is of no importance, since nothing else will happen to her, it’s all been concentrated into a very short period of time.
There’s such a strong feeling of community in the brothel, and it contrasts starkly with the feeling of emptiness in Violet’s life with Bellocq.
And the happiness of that community. That’s what’s probably going to be so shocking for many people — that this life could be described in that way. Somebody said something interesting: when Violet is sold in the auction scene, and she goes up with the guy… there’s a cut to the hallway with two little children waiting in this deserted hallway, and she screams. And somebody commented to me that at this moment you suddenly realize that something really tragic is going to happen to her… it’s important in a way because all of a sudden she’s a victim.
And then you realize she’s faking it.
Right. And that’s when you realize that Violet is so much a part of this scene. Because it’s like show business, in a way; that’s the way she’s been educated, she has to have that toughness. But at the same time I think it’s precisely disturbing because, finally, it’s a metaphor for what, at least in those days, would happen to every girl. Marriage was something that was organized, and you were really sold to somebody… all those stories about honeymoon night.
So the real action takes place when she goes off with her family.
Absolutely…. In Pretty Baby, Violet seems to me to be on top of it most of the time. Something that I did purposely is to have practically every adult in this story completely fucked up, including Bellocq. I probably did something wrong, I probably should have given Bellocq another name so that people don’t relate the real Bellocq to the character in the movie. To me he’s a character who’s very weak, doesn’t know what he wants, behaves terribly so many times because he’s following his own obsession with photography, and he never really relates to Violet, she’s always on top of him. You know, this little girl — the daughter of my friend — said something great. She said: “Instead of breaking the glass plates — as Violet did — I would have broken the camera!” She was completely on Violet’s side, she said that Bellocq was terrible and didn’t understand her. She was giving her own explanation, but I mean to say that obviously Bellocq is the one who’s going to be totally destroyed at the end. Pretty Baby is a picture about child prostitution in which everybody else is the victim.
Making films for you seems to be an all-absorbing process, so much so that it almost turns you into a victim.
Each film for me has a life of its own. I’ve made many films, and it’s like living many lives. Making a film is a life cycle — it’s like being born, taking your first steps, learning how to talk, developing relationships. And then the end of the shooting is the saddest thing in the world. It’s like death in many ways. You’re very depressed, and then you find yourself alone in a new adventure — editing, which takes a long time and which is a reflection of yourself. And then you come out with something, and eventually, in one evening, you find out that everybody hates it!
You have to give up so much of yourself — no wonder directors end up so terribly. At the worst moments on the set of Pretty Baby, someone I was working with would tell me: “Louis, it’s only a film!” It’s only a film, but sometimes it seems that you have to give your life for it.
I was probably much more cynical when I made my first picture. I was young and innocent and pretending to be tough, but actually I was afraid of really getting deeply into it — I wasn’t sure about film at all. Now, I know that film — whether mine are good or bad — is my medium… there’s no other way for me to live. I have no choice….