This is a jolly coming-of-age story about a 14-year-old boy named Laurent Chevalier who is growing up in bourgeois surroundings in Dijon, France.
We start the film with jazz by Charlie Parker and 2 young boys collecting relief money for the troops in Indochina. This later escalates to them entering a record store to “pick up” a new album which they steal. The film later leads to the young boys antagonizing their mother (Lea Massari) over money and where we are properly introduced to the mother and another brother. Right at the beginning, Malle hits you with hijinks that allow you to see that this is not your normal coming of age story.
The youngest boy named Laurent (Benoit Ferreux) has an uncomfortable close relationship with his mother Clara (Lea Massari) much to the chagrin of his father Charles(Daniel Gelin) this is shown in a terse dinnertime scene early on in the movie.His mischievous older brothers Thomas and Marc are great at providing comic relief in the film. They get Laurent drunk, smoke cigars with him and even introduce him to a prostitute to lose his virginity. Some of the funniest scenes in this movie involve the interactions with the maid and the brothers. One in which the maid intruded on the boys measuring themselves with a ruler or when she found a heavily intoxicated Laurent making out with his brothers girlfriend when their parents were out of town.
The films pace is hilarious and it is very quick as it veers from one ridiculous circumstance to another. A funny scene in the film involves the priest who makes a pass at Laurent during confessional. The priest massages Laurent’s thighs after scorning him about “self abuse”. Things that would make an American audience cringe nowadays Malle flippantly handled at a break neck pace back in the 70’s. Laurent is your typical self absorbed teenage boy but Benoit Ferreux plays him with such lack of awareness that it makes the film innocent despite the debauchery. It reminds me of Antoine Doinel from 400 Blows in the sense that the characters are so “smart” yet know so little about their world’s around them that it is very warm to watch. None of the characters have any clue about what they are doing and neither does the audience. Many times I found myself laughing out loud and relating to similar experiences with many of the characters.
The film takes a rather serious turn when Laurent is found to have heart murmur due to getting sick at a Boy Scouts retreat. Laurent and his Mother go to a hotel vacation in which Laurent is given showers to treat his murmur or the scarlet fever that caused it.
Laurent proceeds to try his hand at picking up girls at the retreat and jealously watches his mother as a friend from school tries to seduce her. Laurent and his mother have such an intimate relationship as she shares her inner turmoil with him about her affair and relationship. Malle was really great at hinting but not being predictable with the film. He leaves indications of what will happen but never is overt with it or heavy handed. He doesn’t want you to figure it out for yourself he wants you to watch the film! We saw Clara cheat earlier on her husband and Laurent see but we don’t know where that story line is going until she leaves her paramour to stay with Laurent. We see Laurent reading a sexual book but later he founds his mother reading the same thing. The way Malle subtly ties things in that have such subtle dramatic meaning is wonderful.
After a wild drunken night at Bastille Day celebration, Laurent and his mother engage in sexual intercourse which both promptly agree to forget. What makes this part of the film so brilliant is the fact that the Lea Massari’s performance is wonderful. She is light, cherubic and very intensely sexual. There is a deep emotional intelligence that radiates from the character she constructed of Clara. The character is quiet yet ravenous.Sensual yet modest. It is such an electric performance and Massari really makes the film have depth as she grounds it in a woman’s unhappiness. She plays off Benoit Ferreux very well and his oddness/awkwardness coupled with her expansiveness/guardedness really provides a dysfunctional set up that is easy to see how something so crazy could happen. Malle treats things in the film with a very gentle eye in the sense that he showcases things as is in traditional New Wave Style. He was not one of excess or grandiosity. Malle will never take a film to that level he will always underplay because in real life even when we are our most “aware” we still don’t know it and that is where the real drama lies.
The ending reinforces that when Laurent comes back to the hotel after sneaking out and sleeping with a girl at the retreat. He is met with stern faces with his brothers and father. He suddenly seems to realize the severity of his/mothers actions and for the first time real understanding seeps in as he gazes at his mothers worried face. The men burst out and laugh at the ridiculousness of Laurent sneaking out to get laid (obviously) and the whole family erupts into laughter that the youngest boy is making stabs at “maturity”.
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