Louis Malle: Perspectives on America

Hulu has released a documentary on actress Brooke Shields, who rose to fame in 1978 with Pretty Baby, Louis Malle’s first American film. Until his death in Beverly Hills in 1995, the French director lived in the United States on and off and directed eight films there, including some unknown masterpieces such as Atlantic City, My Dinner with André and God’s Country – astute sketches of American society in the 1980s.
Louis Malle, 1967. © Jean-Pierre Bonnotte/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

By the time he came to America, Louis Malle had already earned his stripes. In 1956, at 24 years old, he co-directed his first documentary, The Silent World, with underwater explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Two years earlier, he had been a student at the prestigious IDHEC film school in Paris. Now he was having the adventure of a lifetime aboard the ship Calypso. The film was showered with awards, winning the Palme d’Or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in Los Angeles the following year.

After that early success, Malle had his eye on America. In 1957, he directed his first fiction film, Elevator to the Gallows, in which Jeanne Moreau wanders the streets of Paris to the sound of Miles Davis’ trumpet. His 1963 film The Fire Within follows the meanderings of a suicidal man who has just returned to France from New York. And his 1971 film Murmur of the Heart opens with a group of teenagers stealing Charlie Parker records. Malle had found success, but he was itching for something more: “I felt like I was becoming a local, regional filmmaker,” he said in the book Malle on Malle, edited by Philip French. “I needed to reexamine everything from scratch.”

Malle moved to New York in 1977. “I spent time in New York, which has always been my favorite city, and still is,” he said. “I also managed to spend time in other parts of America: California of course, Los Angeles, but I also know the Southwest, the South. I was aware that America is a very difficult country to comprehend. Behind the facade, which makes all of America seem pretty much the same, you have an incredible variety of mini-cultures.” He was fascinated by America’s cultural diversity and had two reasons for wanting to go to the U.S. One was to reinvent himself, but he was also curious to discover American society. In the United States, he set his films in different regions and tried, like an ethnologist, to unlock the mystery of America’s “mini-cultures.”

New Orleans: Filming the Transition

Malle was passionate about jazz. After moving to the United States, he initially planned to direct a biographical film about the pianist Jelly Roll Morton. He gathered extensive documentation about New Orleans and its red-light district, Storyville, which was shut down by the municipality in 1917. During his research, he came across the story of a former prostitute who described her experience growing up in a brothel. Malle decided to make her story the subject of his next film.

With Pretty Baby, Louis Malle gave Brooke Shields her first major role. She was just 11 years old. © Bettman/Getty Images

Pretty Baby was shot in New Orleans in 1977. Malle filmed on site in order to capture the spirit of the place and that southern attitude he could sense in the demeanor of the movie’s extras. A young Brooke Shields gave an impressive performance in her first major role, but Malle felt that the technical crew was mediocre. The filming, he said, “Was really a war.” Malle worked by trial and error, which irritated the team. One day, a friend came to visit him on the set and got to talking with a technician, who told him, “Well, I’ll tell you, I’m fed up with working with an artist!”

Despite everything, Malle was able to portray the things that interested him most about Louisiana: the slow pace of life, the relations between men and women, the rituals, reflections on pivotal moments in history, the world of the recent past. Pretty Baby is about Storyville’s last months and the end of its way of life.

East Coast: The Power of Money

On its release, Pretty Baby was praised for its esthetic beauty but also criticized by some as immoral. Malle and Shields went to Cannes, and the 13-year-old girl answered journalists’ questions with poise. Malle was more testy. On television he insisted, “It’s a very chaste film!” He was glad to return to New York and decided to explore the eastern United States.

Louis Malle and Pretty Baby actresses Brooke Shields and Susan Sarandon at the Cannes Film Festival, 1978. © SIPA
Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, 1980. © Northernstars Collection
On September 27, 1980, Louis Malle married American actress Candice Bergen in the Lot département. © Bruno Bachelet/ Paris Match/Getty Images

He initially directed two films on the East Coast. The first, Atlantic City, was funded through a unique arrangement. In order to avail of a tax exemption, a group of Canadian dentists decided to try their hand at film production. They wanted Malle to take on the project. Malle agreed and chose the playwright John Guare as his screenwriter. The two men decided to make a film straddling between documentary and fiction, showing the historic transition the New Jersey city was undergoing at the time of filming. The run-down city was starting to become a hotspot for casinos. Atlantic City features crime and drug dealing, and is a denunciation of the power of money. Susan Sarandon plays a modern woman who dreams of glory and who is training to become a blackjack dealer. Burt Lancaster plays an aging man dismayed by the greed that has taken over his city.

Atlantic City won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for five Oscars. Building on that momentum, Malle followed up with My Dinner with André, in which he continued to reflect on the changes he was observing at the time. The concept is simple: Two actors playing themselves – playwright Wallace Shawn and director André Gregory – are having a discussion at a New York restaurant. Malle captures their conversation and focuses on their vision of New York as a place where everyone is asleep and where people no longer think, but are guided solely by their craving for comfort. It’s a pessimistic view that Malle appears to share. In 1993, he teamed up with Shawn and Gregory again for his last film, Vanya on 42nd Street.

Louis Malle (left) with playwright Wallace Shawn and director André Gregory, sitting on the set of My Dinner with André, 1981. © New Yorker Films/Everett Collection

John Guare, Wallace Shawn, and André Gregory were the people Malle was closest with in the United States. He enjoyed going with them to the cinema and theater – he was fond of the Public Theater in Manhattan’s East Village – and drinking caipirinhas with them at the bars in Midtown. His entourage also included director Mike Nichols, West Side Story choreographer Jerome Robbins, and actress Candice Bergen. Bergen and Malle fell in love and got married in France in 1980.

The Other America: Rural Life and Immigration

Despite his strong ties with New York, Malle was also interested in rural America, particularly the South and the Midwest. He directed a documentary called God’s Country about the rural town of Glencoe, Minnesota. Malle filmed the town’s residents, observed them, and conducted interviews to understand their different views. In a Texas port town on Galveston Bay, he directed a fiction film called Alamo Bay starring Ed Harris. The film depicts relations between American fishermen and Vietnamese immigrants. Blending fictional narrative and documentary, he explores themes such as racial tensions, prejudice, and violence.

When the film was released, American critics seemed to be troubled by the intrusion of a Frenchman in Texan conflicts. But Alamo Bay was a chance for Malle to film the migrant experience. He chose to explore the theme once again in his last American documentary, And the Pursuit of Happiness, which presents the stories of immigrants who have come to America from all over the world. The film pays tribute to an experience that Malle himself was familiar with: being an immigrant, both inside and outside at the same time. It’s a position he tried to maintain for the rest of his life, juggling between France and America.

Louis Malle : Regards sur l’Amérique
by Pauline Guedj, Les Editions Ovadia, 2020.

Article published in the March 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.