Murmur of the Heart (1971)

Review

When the French come of age, they really come of age. That is, I don’t recall any of the kids in Stand By Me having sex with his mother.

Hope that doesn’t ruin anything for you,but you ought to be aware what you’re getting into with Louis Malle’s seminal work, Murmur of the Heart, often described as a ‘lighthearted’ film and Malle’s best work, particularly of the movies he made in his homeland of France.

Much like Atlantic City, probably Malle’s best known work, Murmur has no real inciting incident to begin the tale. Nor does anything really happen during the film. We get the feeling that we’re watching a real character — in this case, the15-year-old Laurent (Benoît Ferreux) — as he faces daily life. In the case of Laurent, that’s a life obsessed with jazz music and, of course, girls. Thanks to his two older, horribly behaved brothers, Laurent is soon obsessed with sex. They even cart him off to a prostitute, only to bust in and pull him off of her in mid-copulation.

So yeah, not a film to watch with the grandparents. Though for most of its running time, Murmur is so quaint that you could easily mistake it for a PG-rated romp. (When will Laurent go to summer camp?)

In fact, Laurent doesn’t go to camp but he does go on holiday with mom after he’s diagnosed with a heart murmur. The treatment is bed rest and ice packs on the chest, and soon he’s off in the countryside at a gorgeous summer resort full of similarly rich kids and their parents. Here, Laurent continues to woo the girls (more his own age, for once), before ultimately ending up with mom. And though you might think that leads to a slam-bang conclusion, it doesn’t. In Malle style, life goes on. In fact, the duo resolves not to talk about it. The film ends as the family is reunited for breakfast, all smiles.

There’s a lot of character depth in Murmur that a plot description doesn’t really do justice to, and Laurent has all the trappings of smoldering performance in Ferreux’s first screen role. (Too bad then that he never really did much career wise, languishing in small roles ever since.) Malle takes this simple story and pumps it full of depth — the twin horrors and joys of being a kid, the hypocrisy of the rich, the politics of marriage, all filtered through the eye of French disillusionment in the 1970s. Even the title is full of meanings. It doesn’t just refer to Laurent’s malady, but also to his emotional development, as his heart is murmuring its way into a discovery of what love is.

Or maybe not. In the end we get the feeling things are going to turn out okay for Laurent, but he’s probably on the same path as his callow brothers. That makes Murmur more bittersweet than it probably ought to be, a feel good movie where the good feelings are tinged with more than a bit of nausea.

Recommended.

Now part of a four-disc Criterion set of three Malle films, including Au Revoir, Les Enfants and Lacombe, Lucien, plus a fourth disc of extras. Bonus materials range from interviews with Malle actors, interviews with Malle himself, behind the scenes footage, and more, including The Immigrant, the 1917 Chaplin short film that appeared in Les Enfants.