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A FILMMAKER WHO FORCED PEOPLE TO THINK ABOUT CHILDHOOD AND ABOUT SEX


When I interviewed Louis Malle in 1976 for the New York Times, his “Pretty Baby” was yet to be born, though he was certainly giving that movie a lot of thought. He had probably never heard of Brooke Shields, who would eventually star as a child prostitute in the 1978 film, nor had he yet met Susan Sarandon, who played Brooke’s mom and became Malle’s off-screen lover. --GUY FLATLEY

 

"I have been making a scientific study of films made in Hollywood by European directors,” says Louis Malle, “and I have come to the conclusion that Antonioni and Jacques Demy failed because they did not spend enough time in this country. And don’t forget, it was five years between Milos Forman’s first American movie, ‘Taking Off,’ and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ I hope it doesn’t take me that long to be successful.”

Malle, the French director of such provocative films as “The Lovers,” “Murmur of the Heart” and “Lacombe Lucien,” has been in the United States for the last eight months, using Los Angeles–-a city he regards with a mixture of repulsion and awe-–as his home base. The movie he is now writing with Polly Platt for Paramount, however, is not envisioned as the definitive exploration of contemporary American mores. Called “Pretty Baby,” it is set in the red-light district of New Orleans in 1917, and two of the major characters are a black jazz pianist and a prostitute of tender years.

“I have always wanted to do a film where the central character is a child prostitute, and it occurred to me that New Orleans was almost the perfect place. Of course, child prostitution has existed since the dream of so many men. It exists today, right here in New York,” says Malle, a slight, handsome man with thick black hair and mournful eyes, who was here primarily to negotiate the reissue of his “Thief of Paris,” an elegant period drama with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Genevieve Bujold that was neglected when it opened here in 1967 but created waves of excitement at the recent film festival at Telluride, Colorado.

“Being a director is like being a thief,” he says in impeccable English. “You steal bits and pieces of the lives around you, and you put them into a movie. After I made ‘Thief of Paris,’ I came to realize that it was a metaphor of my own destiny. I identified with the intensity of Belmondo’s passion. He became a rich man and married the girl he loved, and yet he had this suicidal impulse to continue stealing.
“He was addicted and I am the same way about directing. It is a very consuming passion in my life; it takes over everything else. Right now, I wanted so much to get back to directing. Not writing, not editing, not promoting. I wanted to be a director, at work on the set.”

Malle hopes to begin “Pretty Baby” by February. “This movie has a double interest for me,” he says. “First, it is told from the point of view of a child, and that is something I’ve always felt comfortable with, in movies like ‘Zasie’ and ‘Murmur of the Heart.’ Even in ‘Lacombe, Lucien,’ the French boy who collaborated with the Nazis is very close to childhood. He is taken into a world that he doesn’t understand, one in which he has pleasure and fun, but one in which he is manipulated at the same time.

“Like the girl in ‘Pretty Baby,’ Lucien lives in a world where the moral values are twisted and reversed. I like to make films that force people to reconsider their ideas about childhood and about sex. I think I was especially successful in doing this with ‘Murmur of the Heart’ [at right], which was a comedy about growing up, until the moment when the boy and his mother make love. That made people say, ‘My God, what am I seeing?’

“Besides dealing with children, ‘Pretty Baby’ will deal with the world of exploited women. I’m getting bored with films today because they are all about men. In my movie, men will be the objects for a change. Also, there will be no stars in ‘Pretty Baby.’ After the script is finished, I will find people to fit the roles we’ve written. Not that I have anything against, or for, stars. But if I write a part with Jack Nicholson in mind, they might say, ‘Take McQueen instead, and if he’s not available, take Hoffman.’ It’s insane. If you can’t get Bobby De Niro, get Jack Lemmon. Stupid!”

For Malle, neither the star nor the medium is the message. The message is the message. “My role is that of a troublemaker. I want to wake people up, to make them worry, to argue, to rethink their values,” he maintains. “So many people are sleeping a lot these days. They have been so completely brainwashed by television, by advertising and by their daily routine. For me, the ideal spectator is a prolongation of myself. He, too, must draw his own conclusions. I want him to do some homework. My films are not TV dinners.”