Overlooked & Underseen: Murmur of the Heart (1971)
There comes a time in a boy’s life when, I suppose, they become attracted to their mothers. I don’t know, I’m not a guy but that’s what is going on with Louis Malle’s 1971 feature Murmur of the Heart. It tells the tale of Laurent Chevalier (Benoît Ferreux), a 14 year old boy who experiences some major milestones in his young life.
The film takes place in 1954. Laurent is highly intelligent (the top of his class) and he loves jazz. He likes to get up to mischief as much as the next kid, like smoking and stealing the latest Dizzie Gillespie album. Not, however, as much mischief as his two older brothers (Fabien Ferreux and Marc Winocourt) like to get into. They are “high school” aged and terrorize Laurent every chance they get. Laurent’s father, Charles (Daniel Gélin), is a respected gynecologist and his Italian mother, Clara (Lea Massari), stays home to look after the boys. Their parents are polar opposites when it comes to affection for the children; their father withholds it, and the mother pours it on. She does seem to favor Laurent, however, as she is always hugging and kissing him. Their relationship is very close to say the least.
Laurent is moving towards adulthood whether he's ready for it or not. He is barely into his teens and yet, he begins to engage in adult behaviors mainly because of the influence of his brothers. Yes, of course, they are drinking but remember, this is France; they have wine with most meals. Laurent wants to be able to engage with his brothers on their level so he goes along with anything they propose. When their parents go to Paris for a medical conference, the brothers decide to throw a party. They allow Laurent to stay and he drinks too much. He tries to prove himself by picking up an older teen. He begins a heavy make out session with her and who knows where it would’ve gone had the family’s cook/housekeeper hadn’t intervened. Another time the brothers tell Laurent they are going to get him laid. They steal their father’s car and take Laurent to a club/brothel where they pay for him to lose his virginity. Laurent doesn’t resist his brothers’ whims, he just goes with the flow.
While on a camping trip with his scout group, Laurent becomes ill and develops a heart murmur. The doctor recommends he be taken to a health spa that, evidently, is successful in helping the ailment. Laurent and his mother go off to this spa together while the rest of the family stays behind. It’s at this spa where the two become even closer. They spend nearly every moment together and, although the two enjoy each other’s company, they are staying in close quarters so they also get on each other’s nerves. Their relationship, at times, seems more like they are a couple instead of mother and son, and so Laurent gets jealous whenever someone pays any attention to his mother. Mrs. Chevalier had been carrying on an affair back home and Laurent is still mad at her for that. She has tried to encourage him to make friends while at the spa. He does befriend a girl but he seems only interested to trying to sleep with her. She is not having any of it.
Things come to a head when Mrs. Chevalier’s lover calls her at the spa and demands she see him. She invites him to her rooms when she thinks Laurent is going on a day trip with his friend. Laurent is angry at her and stays behind. He goes back to the room and lies on his bed listening to his mother have sex. Mrs. Chevalier notices him when she comes out of the bedroom. Her lover is none too pleased which makes her furious with Laurent. She decides she’d rather be with her lover than stay with her family, leaving Laurent at the spa by himself. She eventually returns and their reunion is unorthodox, to say the least.
This picture is very French. The themes and actions going on with the Chevalier family and, in particular, mother and son are handled in a way that just wouldn’t happen in an American film. They just wouldn’t. This film was critically acclaimed, for the most part, here in the US when it was released but I cannot imagine what mainstream audiences would think of this movie today, let alone back in 1971. Malle’s film depicts what life was like for him when he was young, as he said the film was autobiographical (at least most of it, anyway). It’s a film about the family dynamic, at heart. It just happens to treat the subject matter in such a way that might be foreign to many people.
It's a film that's very much worth your time, and if you're up for it, Murmur of the Heart is currently streaming on FilmStruck.