In the beginning, even the French had their doubts about Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart. The director’s 1972 film was a memory piece that drew on elements of his own childhood. In it, a timid fifteen-year-old boy grows increasingly distant from his bourgeois French father and increasingly attached to his freewheeling Italian mother. After a bout with scarlet fever reveals that the boy has a heart murmur, his mother takes him to a health spa, where, free from the constraints of their ordinary lives, mother and son are drawn closer than ever—so close, in fact, that one night, on the heels of a boozy Bastille Day celebration, they wind up in bed together, quite gently and quite naturally making love to each other.
When Malle turned in his script for Murmur of the Heart, the Centre National du Cinéma refused to come across with any support at all. The script, they complained, depicted “too many erotic sequences . . . in which all manner of perversions are evoked with a disturbing complacency.” Malle was stunned by the reaction. “I certainly did not set out to do a film about incest,” he later recalled. “But I began exploring a very intense relationship between a mother and her son, and I ended up pushing it all the way.”
Murmur of the Heart went on to enjoy an immense worldwide critical and financial success, and one of its most celebrated admirers was Pauline Kael, who for years had been upending conventional, academically correct notions of film criticism, first as a freelance contributor to a string of film journals and, since 1968, from a truly enviable and distinguished platform as one of two regular authors of the column “The Current Cinema” in The New Yorker magazine. To Kael Murmur of the Heart was one of the most refreshingly complex and honest views of family life she had ever experienced. Malle was to be commended for seeing “not only the prudent, punctilious surface” of the bourgeois experience “but the volatile and slovenly life underneath.” She noted that advance word on the picture centered on its shock value, because of the element of incest. But for Kael, “the only shock is the joke that, for all the repressions the bourgeois practice and the conventions they pretend to believe in, they are such amoral, instinct-satisfying creatures that incest doesn’t mean any more to them than to healthy animals. The shock is that in this context incest isn’t serious—and that, I guess, may really upset some people, so they won’t be able to laugh.”
In 1976 she found herself addressing an overflow audience at Mitchell Playhouse in Corvallis, Oregon, home of Oregon State University. For years Kael had been keeping up a hectic schedule of appearances around the country, drawing huge crowds as her fame grew and more and more readers were hanging on her opinions of the latest movies. Although she had little patience for many of the questions that she was asked at these lecture tours, she relished the opportunity to come together with movie-lovers—young ones, especially—during this fertile period of filmmaking that had sprung up in the late 1960s and was still flourishing.
At Mitchell Playhouse she was introduced by Jim Lynch, an associate professor of English at Oregon State, who delighted her by introducing her as “the Muhammad Ali of film critics.” She proceeded to give a stimulating talk on the current state of movies, then took questions from the audience.
“How many times do you see a movie before you write about it?”
“Only once,” replied Kael.
“What about Persona?” asked one senior member of Oregon State University’s English faculty.