And then there were six . . . .
The other day someone remarked to me that there is currently a better selection of films in London cinemas than there has been for a long time. The dreadful thing is that this is probably true. Of the fifty-two West End cinemas advertised in the evening papers last week, six were showing new films of real merit. A couple more were showing older films of distinction. In Paris or New York this would be a criminally small percentage, and the mobs would be out in the streets burning cinema managers. But we are resigned, it seems, to a situation equivalent to that of a central lending library in which everything stronger than Hammond Innes is stolen away after the first week.
What were the other forty-four cinemas up to? Fifteen were showing ' U ' films, I'm glad to say, except that the only, really good children's film among them, The Railway Children, was showing in a few suburban cinemas sand nowhere else. Nine of the most central cinemas were showing sex films : titles like Kama Sutra and Permissive suggest the level of invention they operate on. Among them are the so-called
sex education' films like Language of Love. It would be a bit late to start educating the audience they mostly attract.
The other twenty cinemas were presenting a mixture of mediocre trifles and harmless blockbusters — films like Soldier Blue and Anne of the Thousand Days. Three were running a Clint Eastwood bummer called Kelly's Heroes, and the King's Cross Cinema, which started off so well, was showing Dad's Army. If you consider there is a holiday demand for these, you might nevertheless wonder why the obviously good films of the year — Monte Walsh, A Severed Head, Battle of Algiers, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion — haven't, any of them, found their way to some of the hundred-odd cinemas ringing central London. The answer is that these cinemas are nearly all controlled by the Rank and ABC organizations. Their distributors, perhaps the most uniquely enterprising people in the entertainment business, believe that if a film does well in Penge it should be released simultaneously to Barkingside, Blackheath, Clapham, Eltham, Hounslow, Mile End, Pinner, Putney, Richmond, Streatham, Woolwich and the Neasden Ritz. Last week it was a year-old spectacular called Tora! Tora! Tora!, yet another 'special presentation' of Oliver!, and a dullish adaption of the ITV series, On the Buses for people who aren't satisfied with their mind-numbing hours of television and have to watch More of it on the larger screen. So much for the London area. I should be interested to know how many Spectator readers out
side it have had a chance to see any of those four films.
One central London cinema which has been having a fortunate summer is the Curzon. That very good film Claire's Knee, which will no doubt disappear never to be seen again, has been replaced by Dearest Love (' X ') which was presumably as near as the exhibitors could get to the descriptive French title, Le Souffle Au Coeur. Louis Malle's first feature film for five years, it is a beautifully made, beautifully written, beautifully photographed story of the education sentimentale of a fifteenyear-old boy, Laurent.
It is not the sort of education one can imagine a British director putting on film, not, at least, even now, in such a carefree and guiltless way. Laurent's precocity is due partly to natural talent — he produces the best essay in class on Le Mythe de Sisyphe — and partly to his extraordinary family: a severe father, a young mother who overwhelms him with affection, and two elder brothers who were expelled from school and won't let anyone forget it. Laurent's essay on Camus is condemned for its modern ideas,' and his sense of the rootlessness of his life is disclosed in other ways: the absurdity of a political system which sends Frenchman out to be slaughtered at Dien-Bien-Phu (the film is set in 1954); the bigotry of a religion which can force his Jesuit schoolteacher to repressed homosexuality; and the tenuity of the family bond which allows his mother to arrange a rendezvous with a stranger in the street beneath his window.
So Laurent goes looking for love, which boils down more practically to losing his virginity. His brothers take him to a brothel but drunkenly interrupt his first attempts with a prostitute. An attack of scarlet fever leaves him with a heart murmur, and he goes off to a spa in the mountains accompanied by his mother (played with great skill by the abundantly charming Lea Massari). After a night of July Fourteenth celebrations the two of them make love. This may have some erotic spiritual significance for the average Frenchman for whom the Mother of Christ and Bastille Day are concepts of equally inestimable worth; but the truth is that Louis Malle manages to make this episode impressive and realistic in its own right. The colophon, which insists that all Laurent's problems are solved in a hash, is disappointingly neat; but what has gone before strikes us with complete conviction. The film is funny, attractive, and worthwhile.