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Murmur of the Heart

It may have been the great film critic James Agee who said, "There just aren't enough funny movies about incest." Then again, it was probably someone else entirely. But for those looking for such a film, there's Louis Malle's bittersweet coming-of-age Murmur of the Heart (1971), about a 15-year-old boy in 1950s Dijon, France. Laurent (Benoit Ferreux) lives with his wealthy gynecologist father, two older brothers and his sexy, Italian mom (Lea Massari). Dad is an emotionally distant figure for whom the boys have nothing but disdain, but they adore their much, much younger mother, who relates to her sons more as a vixenish older sister. The boys are, as adolescent boys will be, obsessed with sex, with the two older boys scheming to get the younger, more thoughtful Laurent laid, at one point taking him to a brothel (which goes very poorly indeed). Malle's film is a charming, vulgar, and very honest remembrance of teen boy adventure, with Laurent smoking his first cigar, drinking brandy, listening to jazz, and scuffling with his obnoxious older brothers — all the while carnally focused on girls, those exotic, impossibly out-of-reach objects of desire. When Laurent is diagnosed as having a heart murmur due to a bout of rheumatoid fever, he accompanies his mother to a luxurious spa hotel for treatment, where he gets a chance to woo a few new girls and spend quality time with his immature, irrepressible, freckle-faced mother who, in the movie's most famous scene, gives Laurent's sexual confidence a much-needed boost. Murmur of the Heart, one of Malle's best films, is rich with detail and subtext, examining not only the pleasures and terrors of adolescence but also marital infidelity, the lifestyle of the bourgeois French circa 1954, and the wide range of hypocrisy of which humans are capable. By film's end, Laurent has achieved the last thing we would have wanted for him — he can bond with his crude brothers and distant father, having finally objectified women for his own entertainment, giving the movie a bittersweet, ironic flavor where a similar American film would have slapped on a saccharine finish. It's an endearing, acidic, and satisfying picture, with complex characters grounded by Malle's understanding of human foibles.

The Criterion Collection offers Murmur of the Heart as part of their "3 Films by Louis Malle" collection, packaged with Au Revoir, Les Enfants and Lacombe, Lucien. The new, high-def digital transfer (offered in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio) is superb, showcasing Malle's muted color palette without sacrificing sharpness or detail. Supervised by director of cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich, it's a virtually flawless presentation, made by scanning the original 35mm negative in 2K resolution, digitally color corrected, and then restored to remove scratches, dust, and noise. The dual-layer disc was encoded at the highest possible bit-rate, offering a truly stunning presentation. The source image was, under Malle's hand, occasionally soft in some places, creating a deliberately dreamy quality, while other scenes are much sharper — in both cases, this transfer is beautifully clean and color-rich. The remastered Dolby Digital 1.0 audio (in French, with newly translated English subtitles) is equally good, coming through the center channel of a 5.1 system but so clean and clear that it's hardly even noticeable that it's monaural. The disc includes the original theatrical trailer and a booklet containing an essay by film critic Michael Sragow. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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