Louis Malle

The Criterion Shelf: The Documentaries of Louis Malle

Bil Antoniou looks at a selection of the French master's non-fiction works.

One of the most instrumental filmmakers of the French New Wave, Louis Malle defined the parameters of the movement with Elevator to the Gallows. It combined elements from crime plots with ruminative aspects of classy arthouse films, predated Breathless, and is responsible for turning Jeanne Moreau into a veritable film star. (Malle was the first one to insist on filming her with a ton of makeup on.)

Throughout his formidable career before his early death in 1995 of lymphoma at the age of 63, Malle amassed a wealthy filmography that included features, experimental works, and a number of documentaries that represented his hands-off observances at their purest.

Malle’s documentary works are accomplished with very little editorializing on his part. They’re marked by a joyous sense of curiosity that passes very little judgment on the subjects he covers and invites the viewer to expand their world view. The Criterion Channel’s collection of Louis Malle’s documentaries mirrors the Eclipse box-set release of a few years ago and doesn’t include his Oscar and Palme d’Or-winning Jacques Cousteau film, The Silent World, but it does have a rich selection of films that I list in preferential order here.


God’s Country (1985)

Louis Malle focuses on a Minnesota farming community in two different time periods, before and during Reagan’s second term, to capture the effect of an economic decline on its residents. The inhabitants of Glencoe aren’t immediately warm to this Frenchman who asks them about the lack of diversity in their mostly German-origin town of 5000, but eventually their suspicion gives way to a generosity toward him that reveals so much more than the small-minded mid-western stereotype that is still used against people in that part of America. The tragedy of families falling into ruin is combined with the joy of discovering experimental theatre artists and the pain of Vietnam veterans for one of Malle’s richest and most riveting films.


Phantom India (1969)

Malle was asked by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to visit India in 1967 and showcase “New French Cinema” to its population. He ended up staying two months instead of the intended two weeks and created a seven-part series that was broadcast on television. Malle always said that Phantom India was his personal favourite of his works. Malle is clearly determined to break through the romantic idea of India as a land of tiger hunts and golden palaces. He doesn’t even show the Taj Mahal in an effort to avoid having his work mistaken for a benign travelogue. Seeing it through a modern-day lens means his success at observing without European judgment will likely depend on the viewer, but there’s no doubt that the great filmmaker had an eye for capturing the most interesting moments of everyday life. He assembles the footage here in the manner of a captivating and affecting narrative.


And The Pursuit of Happiness (1986)

Louis Malle was asked by HBO to make a film about immigration to celebrate the centenary of the Statue of Liberty. Rather than make a film about Ellis Island in the past, Malle, himself newly a citizen in the U.S., decided to focus on living, present-day Americans who came in search of a dream. His film covers a lot of ground, from Cambodian refugees to a Costa Rican NASA astronaut, dispelling the notion of newcomers as being drains on the system who take jobs away from good Americans. In most cases, he finds people who are inspired and optimistic despite the fact that their experience hasn’t been easy.


Place de la République (1974)

Louis Malle took his cameras to the titular square in Paris for ten days and filmed citizens, interviewing whomever was willing and getting a fascinating cross-section of civilian life in the City of Lights. Some are reticent, others can’t shut up as he talks to a street wig seller, a cleaning lady, retirees, homeless beggars, and so many more. The commentaries we hear and the many faces we see make for an easy and enjoyable viewing experience that is often hilarious and sometimes very touching.


Calcutta (1959)

While filming the seven-part docu-series Phantom India, Malle was so impressed with the footage he took in the city of Calcutta that he decided to reserve it for its own feature film. It’s a trip through the streets and shores of this complicated city that he captured during a three week stay. With a population of eight million citizens by the time he was there in 1969, Calcutta is a world of its own, possessing its upper echelons of comfortable life. Malle only spends minimal time on the wealthy citizens in a city teeming with poverty and struggle, to which he gives the lion’s share of attention.

Vive Le Tour (1962)

Malle’s 20-minute look at the 1962 Tour de France isn’t one of his more provocative or incisive works, but is certainly among his most vibrant. The film covers not only the impressive athleticism of the contestants in the race, but also incorporates his own passion for the event.


Humain, trop Humain (1973)

Louis Malle trains his documentary camera on a Citroën factory with soothing, captivating results. There is the feeling that machines will eventually take the place of people. Malle frequently emphasizes images of industry in motion rather than people, closing up on hands creating things, while the footage of crowds on the sales floor seems to be a different kind of machinery in motion. The look at industry of the time is fascinating but the personal impressions are the ones you never forget: the dude with his open-to-the-naval uniform smoking cigarettes while attaching car doors is a character regardless of whether or not he gets to say anything. There is a sense of easy camaraderie amongst the workers who are occupied but not obsessed or ruled by their work.