10 Best Louis Malle Movies, Ranked


Louis Malle was a French filmmaker active between the 1950s and ’90s. His work tends to be dramatic and emotionally realistic, with complex protagonists and layered treatment of themes like alienation, desire, and redemption. Narrative, Malle’s movies span an impressive range of genres: comedy, historical drama, romance, thriller, and documentaries. He was also no stranger to controversy and clearly delighted in engaging with incendiary subject matter. “The longer I live, the less I trust ideas, the more I trust emotions,” he once said.

Malle’s most notable movies include the crime film Elevator to the Gallows, the World War II drama Lacombe, Lucien, the controversial Pretty Baby, the dialogue-driven My Dinner with Andre, the whimsical Zazie dans le Metro, and the autobiographical Au revoir les enfants. At their best, his films are perceptive and sophisticated, revealing a rich understanding of human nature. Not all of his experiments succeed, but a number of Malle’s movies have aged well and remain worth watching. These are the best of them, ranked.

10 ‘May Fools’ (1990)

Starring: Miou-Miou, Michel Piccoli, Michel Duchaussoy, Bruno Carette

This period comedy-drama unfolds against the backdrop of France in 1968, a time marked by intense student protests and social unrest. The narrative revolves around a diverse set of characters who gather for a family reunion at a countryside estate. The mood is tense: the clan’s matriarch has just passed away. The focus is the shifting dynamics within the family, which parallel the turbulent politics outside the manor’s walls.

Through a series of meals, love affairs, and revelations, the characters grapple with personal and collective crises. In particular, Malle skillfully delves into the generational divide, with older family members clinging to tradition while the younger ones embrace the revolutionary fervor of the era. Its strength lies in the fact that it is so understated. May Fools avoids grand proclamations or didactic lessons, instead offering a nuanced portrait of human nature under duress. This may all sound very serious, but much of the story is played as a farce.

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9 ‘Vanya on 42nd Street’ (1994)

Starring: Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Brooke Smith

Vanya on 42nd Street is Malle’s take on Anton Chekhov‘s classic play Uncle Vanya but with the setting changed from 1800s Russia to modern-day New York City. The action takes place in a dilapidated theater, where a group of actors rehearse the play over several months. As they embody the roles of Vanya (Wallace Shawn), Sonya (Julianne Moore), Astrov (Larry Pine), and others, the line between fiction and reality begins to blur, raising questions about love, longing, and the passage of time.

Once again, this is a movie almost entirely constructed out of dialogue which works thanks to the impressive script by Glengarry Glen Ross screenwriter David Mamet. Shawn and Moore are especially good at delivering his lines, complemented by Malle’s subtle but assured visual style. There’s a lot of sadness in the story, particularly loneliness and disappointment, but it’s almost surprisingly hopeful. Despite its flaws, the movie suggests, existence may not be all that bad.

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8 ‘Atlantic City’ (1980)

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Kate Reid, Michel Piccoli

“Buddy, you live too much in the past.” Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon star here as Lou, a small-time hood turned aging mobster, and Sally, a waitress and aspiring blackjack dealer. Sally’s estranged husband (Robert Joy) enlists Lou to sell cocaine for him, which soon leads to violence as rival mobsters catch wind of their schemes. Along the way, Lou and Sally form a connection, but danger closes in on them from all directions.

Lancaster turns in a charming but poignant performance here as a morally gray man seeking one final chance at success. He has great chemistry with Sarandon, who plays Sally as far more emotive and self-aware than Lou. Plus, Malle does a good job of capturing the city on the cusp of transformation, as historic buildings give way to new casinos. The shifting landscape mirrors Lou’s own internal conflict, as he remains entrenched in nostalgia despite the changes all around him.

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7 ‘Murmur of the Heart’ (1971)

Starring: Lea Massari, Benoît Ferreux, Daniel Gélin, Michael Lonsdale

“War is too serious to leave to the military.” Set in post-World War II France, this provocative coming-of-age story revolves around Laurent (Benoît Ferreux), an introspective 14-year-old boy. After he falls ill with scarlet fever, he is cared for by his mother Clara (Lea Massari), and they grow closer, bonding over their shared unhappiness with Laurent’s unloving father (Daniel Gélin). For the first time, Laurent becomes interested in some girls he meets, but his relationship with his mother begins to take a dark and dysfunctional turn.

Murmur of the Heart was controversial, with some organizations attempting to censor it. Nevertheless, most critics embraced the film, praising the psychological complexity of the characters, the commitment of the performers, and Malle’s boldness in exploring taboo topics. Both Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson have since cited the movie as an influence. The latter called it “kind of romantic almost – but also taboo and scary”.

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6 ‘Lacombe, Lucien’ (1974)

Starring: Pierre Blaise, Aurore Clément, Therese Giehse, Holger Löwenadler

“It’s very strange. Somehow I can’t bring myself to completely despise you.” Set during the German occupation of France in World War II, Lacombe, Lucien follows Lucien (Pierre Blaise), an impressionable peasant boy who is rejected by the French Resistance and subsequently joins the Gestapo. He sees it as an opportunity for power and validation, but his newfound authority begins to corrode his conscience. He betrays his own people, but also uses his position to protect a Jewish girl named France (Aurore Clément).

Lacombe, Lucien is thematically rich. The issue of collaboration remains an explosive one in France, and Malle explores it nimbly here. The movie was daring for its time in the way it pokes at French national myths. Indeed, Lucien and the aptly named France become stand-ins for the society as a whole. Rather than getting preachy though, Malle focuses on the characters and leans into their complexity, avoiding easy answers.

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5 ‘The Fire Within’ (1963)

Starring: Maurice Ronet, Léna Skerla, Yvonne Clech, Hubert Deschamps

“I’m killing myself because you didn’t love me, because I didn’t love you.” Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet) is a disillusioned writer struggling with alcoholism and haunted by memories of lost love. Overwhelmed by despair, he sets out on a solitary journey through Paris in a desperate attempt to find a reason to live. Along the way, he reconnects with old friends and encounters various strangers, each representing different facets of his past and potential futures.

The Fire Within represented Malle’s first foray into more serious themes. It incorporates some of the noir elements from his feature debut Elevator to the Gallows but re-purposes them for communicating existential angst. It also features many hallmarks of the French New Wave, like literary references and philosophical conversations. The result might not make for fun viewing, but it’s certainly powerful. The film is also another one of Wes Anderson’s favorites. In fact, Richie (Luke Wilson) in The Royal Tenenbaums quotes the movie’s line “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow”.

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4 ‘Elevator to the Gallows’ (1958)

Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin

“Without your voice, I’d be lost in a land of silence.” On the more entertaining end of Malle’s filmography is Elevator to the Gallows, a stylish and suspenseful crime film. The plot revolves around a meticulously planned murder and its unforeseen consequences. Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), a former paratrooper and now an executive in a Parisian firm, conspires with his lover Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) to kill her wealthy husband. However, Julien’s arefully crafted alibi begins to unravel when he becomes trapped in an elevator due to a power outage.

Meanwhile, a young couple, Louis (Georges Poujouly) and Veronique (Yori Bertin), unknowingly steal Julien’s car, leading to a series of fateful encounters and misunderstandings. Malle tells these twin narratives through bold black-and-white visuals, unconventional editing, and a fantastic Miles Davis score. These aspects have been highly praised, with the film now considered a key work of the French New Wave.

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3 ‘Zazie dans le Metro’ (1960)

Starring: Catherine Demongeot, Philippe Noiret, Hubert Deschamps, Carla Marlier

“The truth? As if you knew what truth was. As if anybody knew.” Malle’s most fun movie is this whimsical comedy about the misadventures of a precocious 10-year-old girl named Zazie (Catherine Demongeot). She comes to Paris to stay with her eccentric uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret), dreaming of riding the subway, but her plans are thwarted by a strike. Undeterred, Zazie embarks on a series of escapades through the city, encountering oddball characters and getting into all sorts of mischief along the way.

Zazie dans le Metro is a whirlwind of absurdity, but there’s also a lot of food for thought in it. This includes clever references to other films and Malle’s own works, as well as satirical jabs at French culture. It was polarizing on release, with some critics dismissing its surreal style. Nevertheless, Akira Kurosawawas a fan, and comedian/filmmaker Ricard Ayoade has described it as a formative influence. “It was the first film I wanted to study and rewatch; it sparked my interest in film‑making,” he has said.

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2 ‘My Dinner with Andre’ (1981)

Starring: André Gregory, Wallace Shawn, Jean Lenauer, Roy Butler

“We can’t be direct, so we end up saying the weirdest things.” My Dinner with Andre takes Malle’s fascination with dialogue to the extreme: the whole thing unfolds almost entirely through a single conversation between two friends over dinner. Wallace (Wallace Shawn), a skeptical playwright, and Andre (André Gregory), a world-traveling theater director, engage in an intellectual and philosophical discussion in a New York restaurant.

The characters represent opposites. Andre has money but craves meaning; Wallace is struggling financially but finds contentment in simple pleasures. Wallace ruminates endlessly, Andre avoids uncomfortable thoughts. As they wax lyrical on topics such as art, society, spirituality, and the nature of reality, the audience is invited to ponder life’s big questions alongside them. Such a premise could easily have collapsed into navel-gazing, but the dialogue sparkles and the disagreements are engaging. The performers’ enjoyment of their roles is palpable. This probably reflects the fact that they themselves wrote the screenplay.

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1 ‘Au revoir les enfants’ (1987)

Starring: Gaspard Manesse, Raphaël Fejtő, Francine Racette, Stanislas Carré de Malberg

“I’m the only one in this school that thinks about death. It’s incredible!” Like Lacombe, Lucien, Au revoir les enfants (meaning Goodbye, Children) takes place in Nazi-occupied France. The main character is Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), a young boy attending a Catholic boarding school where the priests hide Jewish children to protect them from the authorities. When a new student named Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtő) arrives at the school, Julien befriends him, unaware of his true identity as a Jewish refugee.

This is a subtle movie that draws its drama from moral dilemmas. It’s a slow burn, with Malle ratcheting up the tension almost imperceptibly. Malle gives the child actors challenging roles to play, but they more than rise to the occasion. Manesse, in particular, is outstanding. The recreation of 1940s France is also immersive, drawing on Malle’s own childhood. He himself even witnessed Jewish students being rounded up. It makes for arguably his strongest and most moving project. Interesting bit of trivia: while working in a video store, a young Quentin Tarantinomisheard the film’s title as ‘reservoir dogs’. The rest is history.

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NEXT: 10 Great Movies Recommended by Paul Giamatti


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