Set in Dijon, France in 1954, Le souffle au coeur (Murmur of the Heart) concerns Laurent Chevalier (Benoît Ferreux), a jazz-loving, rebellious fifteen year old boy who clashes with his austere father (Daniel Gélin) but is doted on by his beloved, vivacious, sensual Italian mother, Clara (Lea Massari). Between tormenting their housekeepers, Laurent’s boisterous big brothers, Thomas (Fabian Ferreux) and Marc (Marc Winocourt) try their utmost to help him get laid, with a visit to the local brothel. Amidst these misadventures, Laurent comes to suspect his mother is having an affair. When Laurent is unexpectedly diagnosed with a heart murmur, Clara spends some time alone with him at a health resort for young people where the love between mother and son transgresses moral boundaries, yet with an unexpected outcome.
This upbeat yet decidedly unorthodox coming of age story belongs to a cycle of iconoclastic studies of adolescence made by Louis Malle, including Lacombe Lucien (1974) and the widely celebrated Au revoir, les enfants (1987) but whose themes arguably extend to the likes of Pretty Baby (1978) and even Zazie dans le métro (1960). Le souffle au coeur unsettled many with its almost casual depiction of mother-son incest, but it is worth noting that incest is only an aspect of the film and not its subject. While not especially explicit, sex remains the driving force of the story which seems appropriate given sex is more often the driving force behind adolescence, whether it is simple curiosity, biological imperative or heartfelt emotional desire.
For Malle, childhood is not a place of innocence. It is the place of discovery and that journey can often lead down confusing, psychologically and emotionally frought paths. Laurent’s anxiety over his mother’s infidelity, coupled with his abiding love for her, somehow intermingles with his nascent sexuality. Malle leads viewers into ambiguous areas of adolescent psychology, feelings most grownups have forgotten and likely don’t want to remember. Even today, when filmgoers have been subjected to things considerably more shocking, the film’s tender, romantic and positive treatment of a potentially queasy plot development has proven an insurmountable hurdle for some. Yet what proves remarkable is how persuasive Malle makes his case that such a momentously transgressive incident need not be so psychologically-traumatising nor inextricably bound with heavy-handed, moralising melodrama as would be the case were this a Hollywood film. As the film ends as it began, with smiles and laughter, Malle even dares to suggest the incestuous act has been a cathartic, healing experience for the family.
Although Malle was emphatic the incestuous aspect was not drawn from his own life, the film is semi-autobiographical. The famed writer-director really did suffer from a heart murmur in his youth and spent some time at a health resort with his mother in supposedly “unusual circumstances.” Amidst the furore over its freewheeling attitude to incest and adolescent sexual experimentation, one overlooked aspect of the film is its political content. Events unfold as the French military make their last stand in what was then Indochina. Malle posits the fun-loving anarchy of the Chevalier brothers as a similar rebellion against the staid, bourgeois hypocrisy of their parents’ generation: closet fascists still clinging to the remnants of their colonial empire.
Defiantly episodic, the film documents events both exceptional and everyday along Laurent’s road to emotional maturity (a destination admittedly, more hinted at than actually shown) with the same wry humour. Malle’s direction mimics his character’s nature: earthy and naturalistic, bawdy but honest, ebullient and as energetic as one of the jazz records Laurent worships in the sanctity of his bedroom. Italian actress Lea Massari is a fittingly warm, charismatic presence equal parts maternal and sensual, while gawky, young Benoît Ferreux essays an engagingly honest portrayal of precocious youth, flawed and even obnoxious at times yet ultimately sympathetic.