Louis Malle is remembered nationally and internationally as one of the great French film directors. Having directed over 33 films in his forty-year career, he gained international fame through his tacking of controversial subjects, and crafting intense films that never passed judgment on its subject or characters.
Malle was born in a well to do family in the Thumeries – his ancestors had made a fortune in sugar, dating back to the days of Napoleon. He was educated at a catholic boarding school, and eventually went to study political science at the Sorbonne. He quickly switched his focus to film, studying at Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques.
After only his fist year at Institut, Malle landed his first job, working with the famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Their collaboration resulted in The Silent World (1956), Malle’s first co-directing job; the film won numerous awards, including the Academy Award and the Golden Palm at Cannes. One would think this ambitious filmmaker would have leapt into his first solo effort.
Instead, Malle opted to assist director Robert Bresson, and even worked as a cinematographer for Jacques Tati. It wasn’t until 1957 when Malle directed his first solo project, Elevator to the Gallows (also known as Frantic). Starring the superstar Jeanne Moreau, the film won acclaim as a taut psychological thriller that featured a rare score by the jazz great Miles Davis.
Controversy followed Malle’s films, for good reason – The Lovers (1958) tackled sex, The Fire Within (1963) tackled suicide, and Murmur of the Heart (1971) focused on incest. But his most well remembered and critically lauded film is the intensely personal film Au revoir, Les enfants (1987). Based on his own catholic school upbringing, the story focused on a young boy who eventually discovers that among his classmates are a Jewish teacher and four students hiding from the Nazis in World War II.
Malle was a unique filmmaker, as his work was never part of any movement, including the French New Wave, and yet his contemporaries admired him. Malle was also one of the few filmmakers in the world who was able to maintain a career both in his homeland and in Hollywood, directing hits such as My Dinner with Andre (1981), Damage (1992) and his last film, an adaptation of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya known as Vanya on 42nd Street (1994).
After three marriages, including his last one to American actress Candice Bergen, Malle passed away at the age of 63 of Lymphoma.