The Malle box set contains "Murmur of the Heart" (1971), "Lacombe, Lucien" (1974) and his triumph "Au Revoir Les Enfants" (1987) -- all remarkable films set in France. They are in color, with Criterion's usual first-rate transfers (widescreen, enhanced). These films, taken as a trilogy, argue for Malle's inclusion as one of the great directors of the century's second half. They are humanistic works -- uplifting in many places and deeply sad in others. The performances Malle gets from his players are uniformly rich.
Descriptions of "Murmur" usually begin and end with the incest between the teen hero and his youthful mother, but most of the time the film serves up a comic, life-affirming look at growing up in 1950s France. Biographer Pierre Billard, who gives an excellent talk about Malle in the set's extra-features disc, says the French debate over the incest scene quickly morphed into a larger debate over censorship. Malle, he says, "courted scandal."
"Lacombe, Lucien" also brought controversy. The story of a brutish French teenage who joins occupying Germans in hunting down resistance fighters was condemned as soft on collaborators. Malle, who loved documentaries, employed a distanced, non-judgmental tone that acknowledged the humanity of the blood-simple turncoat.
Malle moved to the United States in the late '70s, creating some notable English-language films ("Atlantic City," "Pretty Baby") and some bombs ("Crackers"). His late '80s homecoming inspired more criticism. Malle's years in the States had alienated his countrymen. "They still haven't forgiven him for that," says Candice Bergen, who gives an otherwise upbeat talk about her late husband on the DVD. "It's horrible." (Malle died in 1995, in Los Angeles.)
The director, from a wealthy family, attended a Catholic boarding school during the occupation. Germans raided the school one morning, arresting the head priest and several Jewish children he'd been hiding. They all perished in the camps. These events provided the autobiographical backbone for "Au Revoir Les Enfants," often cited as Malle's greatest work.
It too dealt with collaboration. One of the box set's extras is an unusual character analysis of Joseph, the bitter kitchen worker who informs on the priest.
Other DVD special features include three in-depth audio interviews with Malle; footage of the director at work on "Murmur" and "Lacombe"; the 2005 interviews with Bergen and the biographer; and, in a nice touch, a copy of Charlie Chaplin's "The Immigrant," which the "Enfants" delight to in one of that film's many light-hearted moments.