Louis Malle’s incest-tinged film Murmur of the Heart is a gentle blow against political correctness

Baradwaj Rangan

Mar,12 2018 11:32:52 IST

There’s nothing quite like the Oscars to put you off political correctness for a while. There’s definitely the need to say these things – about gender equality, about racial discrimination, and a huge shout-out to Frances McDormand for making us aware of what an “inclusion rider” is (see below) – but there are times you wince at the solemn, self-congratulatory air of it all. Everyone is so hell-bent on making a political statement that cinema seems to get left behind, as was evident in the Best Foreign Film statuette going to A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica).

As subjective as these evaluations are, I felt the film won simply because of what it was about (the experiences of a trans woman) than how it was about it. In other words, politics trumped cinema.

Which is why I think it’s a good time to remember an era when cinema could be unapologetically apolitical, and it was possible to take up a controversial story without the fear of a massive (social) media backlash. I’m talking about a film like Louis Malle’s 1971 drama, Murmur of the Heart (Le souffle au cœur), which is, without doubt, the least judgmental film ever made about incest. The story is about a teenager named Laurent (Benoît Ferreux), one of three brothers, who is diagnosed with scarlet fever and is left with the titular condition. While in a sanatorium, he is cared for by his mother, Clara (Lea Massari, the star of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Sergio Leone’s gloriously trashy first film, a sword-and-sandal epic named The Colossus of Rhodes). One thing leads to another and... incest.

The premise is far more scandalous than the picturisation. It’s not some passionate affair so much as an accidental episode, after an inebriated Bastille Day celebration. There’s very little nudity: a bra being unhooked, some nuzzling. And post the event, we get this remarkable exchange. Clara says, “I don’t want you to be unhappy or ashamed or sorry. We’ll remember it as a very beautiful and solemn moment that will never happen again.” Laurent hugs her tightly, not like a man who’s just made love but like a little boy clutching his mama. He asks, “What’s going to happen now?” Clara says, “Nothing. We’ll never mention it again. It’ll be our secret. I’ll remember it without remorse, tenderly. Promise you’ll do the same.” The mother is not judged. The son is not pitied. The happening itself is not portrayed as anything too out of the ordinary.

Clara knows what’s happened isn’t... well, normal. But Malle’s exquisitely tender direction makes us see that it isn’t too... abnormal, either. In Malle on Malle, edited by Philip French (it’s one of the many marvellous “Directors on Directors” books from Faber & Faber), the director reveals that the story grew out of his fascination with Georges Bataille’s Ma Mère, “a very dark and tragic story of incest.” (That novel was made into a 2004 film by Christophe Honoré, starring Isabelle Huppert and Louis Garrel.) Plus, there’s a bit of autobiography. Malle himself had a heart murmur, and “this very strange and passionate relationship” with his mother (though he stresses there was nothing sexual).

Malle confesses he was, at first, as politically correct as one is likely to be with such a subject. He admits, “Mother-son incest is the ultimate taboo. People find it easier to deal with the other one – fathers raping their children.” So his first draft treated the event as “something that has to be condemned and suppressed”, and so he injected some guilt. The son contemplates suicide. But later, while discussing the script with Jean-Claude Carrière – the legendary screenwriter of Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, among other films – Malle realised that “there was something that was completely natural about it. Maybe that’s why incest is so scary… because it’s so natural for maternal love to turn into something else.”

I cannot imagine this film being made today – at least not with Malle’s matter-of-fact blitheness. Of course, there are grave psychological underpinnings. The mother is still reeling from a breakup. The son has finally begun to understand her adultery. But there’s not a smidgen of political correctness. Malle has no desire to comment on the proceedings. He merely depicts. In the book, he says he saw the incest not as trauma but the natural progression of “an excess of love.” I laughed. Imagine a filmmaker sticking his neck out and saying something like that today, making a case for art rather than politics. (Amazingly, Murmur of the Heart received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.)

About the public reactions to the film, Malle said, “I think it was a case of double-take for many people; they enjoyed the film tremendously, and when they thought about it they said, ‘Hey, this is a very scandalous proposition.’ I really liked that. It’s one of the things I’ve always liked to do, forcing people to reconsider preconceived ideas.” But with changing times – and changing moralities – Malle himself seemed to have changed. Look at his Damage (1992), in which a politician has an affair with his son’s fiancée. The p0litician ends up disgraced, his son ends up dead, and the fiancée ends up an emotional wreck. To be fair, this wasn’t entirely Malle – the film was based on a novel (by Josephine Hart). But where Murmur of the Heart is a gossamer-light coming-of-age dramedy, Damage is thunder-and-lightning Greek tragedy. And very politically correct.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South)

Updated Date: Mar 12, 2018 11:32 AM