Human, Too Human
Wearing your heart on my sleeve

by Ruby Rich

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 30-31
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

“My film is not supposed to be an exposé or a demonstration, but a deliberate look cast upon a work style that exists in the whole world and under all political systems.”

“It just shows people repeating the same five gestures.”

Both quotations originate with Louis Malle. What to make of them, of him and of this newly released film?

Point of view, as a concept, is usually relegated to high school English classes. However, it becomes so central an issue in Malle’s films that a resurrection is demanded. Looking back over his history as a filmmaker, despite his frequent Marxist proclamations, it appears more probable that Malle’s ideology is a humanistic romanticism, conveyed through a style and point of view hinged on ambiguity. It is this ambiguity that determines the success or failure of his films, in general winning praise for his fiction films (like LACOMBE, LUCIEN) and criticism for his documentaries.

Louis Malle is most well known for his fiction films, from his early New-Wave-styled love stories to his recent popular incest story, MURMUR OF THE HEART. Less known is his work as a documentarist, from his start in filmmaking as Jacques Cousteau’s cameraman for three years, through years of television documentaries on such scenes as Algerian independence and the war in Vietnam (circa 1963), to his coming of age as a documentarist with the splashy Indian opus, PHANTOM INDIA (and its shorter TV companion, CALCUTTA). Asked about the diversity of his career, Malle once stated that he intended to alternate always between fiction and documentary films. In addition to HUMAN, TOO HUMAN, he made another documentary, PLACE DE LA REPUBLIQUE (a series of street portraits), in the same period, between his two successful fiction films: MURMUR OF THE HEART and LACOMBE, LUCIEN. One would assume that a prospering and moneyed commercial film director would insist on such projects, bound to be unpopular and unlucrative, because of strong political convictions—that he had a message to communicate that could not be contained within the bounds of his fictions.

Incredibly, such is not the case. In his narration of the six-hour PHANTOM INDIA, for example, Malle constantly revealed a sincere but naive liberalism that couldn't compensate for his lack of depth and characteristic “tourist” attitude. He applied a French cultural perspective to the Indian situation so that his socialist comments often seemed grafted on to an erroneous view of Indian culture. Perhaps criticism of his narration influenced his decision to omit any in HUMAN. The problem is still far from solved, however.

Eschewing narration as well as all other dialogue (with the singular exception of the mildly amusing auto-show sequence), Malle has concentrated on a cinema verite sound-of-the-factory audiotrack, fusing the sound with his images to present a beautiful, stylized view of assembly line work. But to what end? It’s possible to’ spend the entire film trying to decide whether Malle thinks factory work is alienating or not. He has edited the physical routines on the job into a slick modern dance, the repeated gestures frozen out of their infinite deadening repetition into a glossy sampler of “found” choreography. While momentarily beautiful to look at, the images gradually become more and more disturbing.

Malle’s weakness has always been a tendency to let the image speak for itself and become incoherent. His mock-heroic opening shot of the woman worker as deus ex machina promises satire; his shot of the car body, sinking like a mechanistic Venus de Milo in reverse, promises insight into an automobile as totem object of machine culture; his study of process promises some meaning.

Malle fails to fulfill his promises, constantly opting for a cute portrait, a beautiful movement or—finally—a closing freeze frame to embody his message. Unfortunately, showing the audience a pretty image does not necessarily supply any meaning. The film remains a Rosetta Stone without code, convenient for us to graft our own interpretations onto but ultimately devoid of intrinsic integrity. Malle avoids the political issues of factory life by retreating to human faces, to show, yes, these. workers are human. Too human. Too human to be doing this work, or too human to be oppressed by it?

On the one hand, audiences have seen Godard’s views of the factory as oppressor. On the other hand, visitors to trade fairs and world fairs have seen industrially commissioned films of factories as heaven on earth. In neither case is the viewer likely to believe that the film is strictly documenting the “real” story; both are construed as propaganda. Here Louis Malle has made a film with all the look of an industrial promo spot, based upon a political attitude that condemns exploitation and claiming to be a documentary “look” at factory life.

Now, on the one hand, there is some anti-industry evidence, notably the shocking absence of safety equipment. Welders work with the flimsiest glasses, workers blazing hot metal into car joints work with none at all, spray painters have no masks, workers twining wire on high speed blades seem to have no guards against amputating fingers and hands. The scene in the locker room, where the men are painstakingly washing their skin, is a reminder of the toxic fallout that they are exposed to daily. But any outrage one might feel is eased by how beautiful, everything looks.. Nothing in the filming or editing tries to show the harshness behind it.

For his “documentary” flavor, shouldn't Malle have included a few more old people who didn't move as gracefully, a few who are not beautiful or even ugly? Does everyone look happy, content, dignified because they truly are or because the film camera is there? Except for one mechanics sequence, the work place is leisurely. Is this, then, not a piecework factory? Or are the foremen holding off because of the camera crew and concern for their image? Most puzzling: why does no one speak? For a time it’s very nice to see the work, watch the movement, without worrying about language or subtitles. But eventually one comes to miss it, to wonder what these people would be saying if granted a mike. In Woman’s Estate Juliet Mitchell recounted an experience in a factory asking the women why they worked there:

“Frequent reason is the social company, the chats with other women. I was given this reason by one of the women working in the foundry. I was standing beside her, screaming above the din, my throat sore from a metal dust that was acknowledged to corrode paintwork. ‘But how can you talk to each other?’ ‘We lipread.’”

Malle’s cut from the auto show to the factory passes quickly in a close up; we're several shots into the factory before realizing it. The last line of dialogue. “I'm fed up!” Was that before or after the cut? Well, close inspection shows it was spoken before—the last words recorded at the auto show. But certainly they could have been the only words spoken in the factory. It’s ambiguous whether Malle means this joke to be coy or meaningful. In sum, Malle lacks credibility as a documentarist.

HUMAN, TOO HUMAN is a confusing film, alternately illuminating and infuriating, rich and empty. It’s main strength must rest not with the film as such but with the information it conveys about Louis Malle. Having seen this work, I find the weaknesses and skills of his other films become more clear. LACOMBE, LUCIEN was praised for its elliptical suspension of judgment; now we see that Malle merely brought his typical ambiguity to bear on the usually clear-cut subject. MURMUR OF THE HEART was praised for its humanism; similarly, illumination. Louis Malle, finally, seems more impressive for his controversial choice of subjects than for distinctions of style. And the unconventional choices he makes are nevertheless not radical: the oddball masks the conservative. Louis, you're an incurable romantic.