One short and two feature-length documentaries show how Malle's gift for nonfiction filmmaking was fully formed at an early stage. The 1962 short "Vive Le Tour" (19 minutes) is a remarkably intimate look at that year's Tour de France bicycle race, offering a vivid account of the race itself, in addition to the rural French surroundings, rabid fans, and bicyclists in various stages of exhaustion as their endurance test continues. The 72-minute Humain, Trop Humain ("Human, All Too Human," 1973) is a fascinating and pointed experiment in verité style, eschewing narration as Malle's camera probes the numbing routines of dehumanizing labor on the assembly line of a Citroën auto factory. In the middle of the film, Malle offers the stark contrast of eager auto consumers at a Paris motor show, but otherwise this remains a riveting (pardon the pun) look at laborers performing robotic duties, with Malle serving as a subtle admirer of their daily endurance. Malle returned to the subject of working people in Place De La République (1974), a wryly amusing, 95-minute study of a small stretch of sidewalk in a working-class Parisian neighborhood. As Malle interviews various passersby, the film evolves into a penetrating and often humorous examination of the social and personal factors that make people happy or discontent, and a testament to Malle's refined sense of class-conscious curiosity.
In 1969, Malle said he was "fed up with actors, studios, fiction, and Paris" (referring to his battles with Alain Delon during the making of the omnibus film Spirits of the Dead), so he traveled to India with a two-man crew to create his seven-part, 363-minute masterpiece Phantom India. Originally broadcast as a miniseries on French television and financed with Malle's own money, this was the film that Malle considered the most personal of his career. Epic in scope yet intimate in its embrace of India's impoverished majority, it provides what was (in the late '60s) an unprecedented portrait of India's culture--its poverty, caste system, and maddening contradictions. As a companion piece assembled from his vast amount of Indian footage, Malle made Calcutta (99 minutes) to focus on that city's own unique history, personality, and people. Here, Malle trades the slow, contemplative pacing of Phantom India for a more intensely focused examination of the sociopolitical issues that plagued all of India, most conspicuously in its most densely populated city.
After relocating to the United States in 1975 (to direct Pretty Baby), Malle continued to alternate narrative features with documentary projects. The PBS-funded God's Country (89 minutes) was originally broadcast in 1989, and focuses in the close-knit farming community of Glencoe, Minnesota, with 80% of its population of 5,000 comprised of German descendents. Most of the film was shot in 1979, but when it took several years for PBS to finance the editing process, Malle returned to Glencoe in 1985, only to find the farmers (who had welcomed Malle as a curious outsider) struggling in the aftermath of economic recession. Thus, once again, does Malle's work focus on the tenacious survival of working-class people. It's only fitting, then, that the final film in this set (also Malle's final documentary) is titled ...And the Pursuit of Happiness (81 minutes), in which Malle focused on recent immigrants to America including Cambodian refugees, a Pakistani schoolteacher-turned-cosmetics salesperson, an Ethiopian cab-driver, a NASA astronaut from Costa Rica, and many others. Drawing upon his own perspective as an outsider in America, Malle continued to express his uncommon empathy for people in various stages of adjustment or displacement.
As the reasonably priced "Series 2" release of the Eclipse division of the Criterion Collection, The Documentaries of Louis Malle does not include any supplemental materials aside from well-written liner notes, but the superiority of these films speaks for itself. If it wasn't obvious before, it's now quite clear that Louis Malle ranked highly among the most accomplished documentary filmmakers of the 20th century. --Jeff Shannon