If you’re a teenage boy in a post-war bourgeois family, struggling with a cold father, a Catholic education and two mischievous older brothers, there are three pleasures in life: a mother’s love, Jazz music, and the slow, self-conscious introduction to girls.
Le Souffle au Coeur is a semi-autobiographical comedy in which Louis Malle directs the wiry Laurent (Benoît Ferreux) as a young teenager who’s cheeky and dissatisfied with his place in the family. Laurent has enormous energy with a sulk to match. We see him running to school, late for altar-service at chapel and bounding up the stairs at home like a lolloping puppy.
The adults in Laurent’s house are comic acts whom he dodges and adores. On the ground floor, his father uses a large room as his gynecological surgery, which Laurent observes from afar with irritation and trepidation. The matronly housekeeper attempts to assert discipline (with little effect), while the mother, Clara (Italian actress Lea Massari), is beautiful and playful. She’s the kind of mother who is put on a high pedestal by her sons, whom then spend a frustrated lifetime searching for a woman who can match her radiance. Clara is ignored by her chilly husband yet receives the adoration she needs from her sons.
And, of course, Clara has a lover. One day Laurent sees his mother getting into a young man’s car, and retreats into a mood. Laurent is a true teen: his feelings are huge, but he is never taken seriously. Most memorable is the evening when his two older brothers decide it’s time Laurent lost his virginity. They take him to a brothel, set him up with a young blonde woman, and burst in during the act. And so it comes as no surprise Laurent’s youngest-brother status makes him frustrated and a little angry.
Laurent then goes on a scout-trip and develops a heart murmur, brought on, quite possibly (although never alluded to) by the trauma in the brothel. His mother takes him away to a sanitarium to recover. It’s a nice one, though. There are tennis courts, pleasant bedrooms and pretty girls to flirt with. And there’s also his mother to spy on naked in the bath. Her back is shaped like a cello and Laurent finds it fascinating; this leads the film into new territory, usually only treated by cinema with a grey, heavy hand.
Malle is directing weighty themes here, but not once does the film seem leaden. It is as light as the Jazz-soundtrack, a breezy comedy. The relationship between Laurent and his mother is directed so it is as normal as the day-to-day eating of dinner and going to sleep. Malle avoids judgement. It’s not shocking, and sits surprisingly simple in our minds. A sweet rhyme with little shadow.
Director: Louis Malle (1971)