A boy's best friend is his mother

Sep 13, 2006
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:script, characterizations, humour

Cons:A climax some may not expect(although the movie is setting you up for it).

The Bottom Line: Shocking yet charming all at the same time.

The one two-word phrase that entered my very unimaginative brain that would describe Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart was a “shocking comedy.” I probably should qualify that phrase by saying “shocking comedy - well, shocking when it was made in France in 1971.” There’s probably nothing here to disturb most fans of Hollywood gross-out comedies, which this film certainly is not. But I suppose people expecting just a nice warm coming-of-age tale will get something more than they bargained for.

Fifteen-year old Laurent is the sort of sensitive, rebellious, smart kid who always seems to show up in vintage French movies like this (think Truffaut’s The 400 Blows). While Laurent apparently does well academically, he’s also likes to steal Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie records at the store, thumb his nose at authority a little bit, and say the sorts of intelligent witty things that most 15-year olds I’ve seen probably could never conjure up even when they reach adulthood.

His family life is pretty nutty. Laurent’s adventures with his older brothers are the most amusing. His brothers would best be described as very immature and irresponsible, but you often can’t help but laugh even as you know this is not good behavior. They frequently get Laurent involved in some potentially scarring situations, such as taking him to a brothel so he can lose his virginity. (The two brothers, drunk, later walk in to tease him.) There’s also some plain old goofy situations: a game of “spinach tennis” at the dinner table when the parents are away. Or secretly switching a priceless painting on the living room wall with a forgery, an event that turns into a send-up of the privileged and their relationship to art. And there’s another bit where they boast about their supposed manhood by comparing penis sizes (actually, this is probably not the first movie to include such a scene).

The interesting thing about the relationship between the three brothers is that it is good-natured. The older brothers tease him a lot, especially about his bond with his mother (more on that later), and get him involved in situations he’s far too young for, but it’s clear they love him like a brother. There’s nothing mean or cruel about them - they’re just completely irresponsible!

Laurent’s relationship with his parents is very interesting as well. He appears to be the classic mama’s boy - he has a rather fractured relationship with his father, while his mother - a passionate Italian woman - constantly dotes on him and is overtly affectionate toward him.

The central emotional material focuses on Laurent’s relationship with his mother. Things appear to be business as usual until one day when he notices his mother in a car kissing a strange man. Of course Laurent is quite upset at this, and for a while shuns his mother’s advances. But quickly things go back to normal until later on in the film, when he comes down with a heart murmur and he and his mom go to a sanatorium for a while so he can recuperate.

Yet again, he sees her with one of her lovers. And as well, other men of varying ages and backgrounds compete for her attention, including a young man who had already told Laurant how hot his mom is. Laurant’s jealousy - and that’s what it is - simmers throughout much of this second half, even as he himself gets wrapped up in usual adolescent concerns such as chasing after one of the slightly older teenage girls at the hotel. His bitterness continues until his mother returns to the hotel room, heartbroken over her lover’s demands that she get a divorce. He suddenly sees her as more than just a “mother” and eventually what occurs transcends the typical “son-mother” relationship.....

Having heard about this movie and what exactly makes it notorious (as you see, I haven’t totally spelled out what makes this film so, although I’m sure you’ll make some fairly correct assumptions), I assumed this would be a “serious” drama, when it’s far from the case. A cheerfully amoral comedy is closer to the mark. While it’s certainly a laid-back, very French character-based movie like all the others, it’s also a movie filled with many real-life laughs, even in scenes which are in questionable taste.

One of the funny/tasteless bits is when Laurent goes to confession (he attends a Catholic school in the 1950s, and weekly confessionals are compulsory). The priest seems to enjoy trying to get this kid (and probably all the others who confess to him) to spill out all his wicked sins - he especially hopes to hear that Laurent’s sins include masturbation - and in a moment of perfect comic timing, the priest follows up some stern yet gently-spoken views about the nature of sin with “My, what muscles you have. I bet I couldn’t even wrap my entire hand around your thigh...”

And the inevitable climax and resolution feels almost like a charming sitcom as written by a pervert. How many movies and TV shows have scenes where the disgruntled father sees that something is amiss and asks the hapless kid “what’s your explanation for all this?” Many. But Murmur of the Heart puts a little extra spin on that classic bit of comedy.

I’m thinking this movie, presented in that typical sensitive and humanist way all good French films are, was meant to blow apart taboos in a gentle, subtle yet ultimately shocking way. The sacred institutions of religion and family are mocked without mercy. Symbolic tensions are taken to a literal extreme. Yet it is a tribute to how good Louis Malle is as a filmmaker that you could actually call this story delightful and like and enjoy these characters. Instead of being a potentially tasteless and dangerous movie, it’s an original one.

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