Sunday, January 16, 2011

Jean-Pierre Melville

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2006)

Two of my favourite recent DVD purchases came about rather by surprise. Very occasionally, I get it in my mind to buy a movie without having anything specific in mind (always a rather surprising impulse given the lengthy wish list I maintain on the computer, strategically located where my wife can stumble across it in the run-up to Christmas and birthdays), and thus browsing Bay Street Video one day I saw Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai on the shelf and thought: Well, there it is. I'd seen the film a long time ago, but remembered nothing of it except the image of Alain Delon in his trench coat. Among other things, I thought it was in black and white, and was quite astonished when the movie started up in colour. It’s possible I saw it even longer ago than I think, at a time when I could only catch late night movies on a small black and white TV in my bedroom, which between the poor picture quality and having to keep the sound down low (in case my parents got wise to this illicit activity) would have made even The Wizard Of Oz seem ghostly and nourish.

A Delon Trilogy

Anyway, I thought Le Samourai (made in 1967) was terrific, and the next time I was in the store I made a beeline for Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, the movie he made right afterwards. I first saw this a bit more recently than Le Samourai, during a Melville season at the Cinematheque, maybe eight years ago or so. I was there with my wife, and I recall we both spent the better part of the movie asleep and absorbed nothing of it. I think maybe we were jet-lagged from a recent trip – clearly we shouldn’t have bothered. It certainly can’t have been a reflection of Le Cercle Rouge, which is almost as mesmerizing as Le Samourai, and even more intriguing in some ways.

As I write I clearly need to take the next step and buy Un Flic, the film Melville made afterwards, which completed his unofficial Alain Delon trilogy. At that point I will already be done, for Melville died soon afterwards. He had made nine films prior to Le Samourai, although only one, Bob Le Flambeur, seems to be currently available on DVD (it was remade a few years ago by Neil Jordan as The Good Thief). Melville was born in 1917 in Paris, served in the French Resistance, and made his first feature film in 1947. His real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach, but he renamed himself after Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick. One of the extras on the Cercle Rouge disk, a 1970 documentary, shows him turning up in his big American car (fitted with all the modern conveniences, points out the voice over, such as a cassette player), with a Stetson and dark glasses (although no cigar). It portrays him as being as much businessman as artist; he founded his own studio early on, and then built it up again after it burned down.

I have not seen as many of his early films as I should have done – as I said, I think I was away during that Cinematheque season. David Thomson, for one, would say that I have therefore not seen the director’s best: the late thrillers, he says, “are virtually interchangeable, for the environment and legend are important above everything else. It was an independent path, very entertaining, but not as demanding of Melville himself.”

Always False

Indeed, the films generally feel sublimely calm, both utterly in control of their genre mechanics and yet composed to the point of abstraction. In Le Samourai, Delon is a lone contract killer who has both the police and his employers on his trail after there’s an eye witness to one of his assignments; the film has an almost unequaled sense of cool, distanced fatalism. Le Cercle Rouge widens the parameters to include Gian Maria Volonte and Yves Montand, teaming up with Delon to carry out a big jewel robbery, again with the law closing in. Not quite as coolly insinuating as its predecessor, and not quite tapping the same philosophical dimensions, the film is nevertheless a fascinating creation of considerable scope, striking me at various points as being the Heat of its day.

In reading the material accompanying the DVD’s, and reading a little bit elsewhere on Melville (as for many other things, I highly recommend, he starts to strike me as one of those directors whose claims (or disclaims) for his own films should not be taken entirely seriously, and may as well have been delivered while winking at the interviewer from behind those dark glasses (Le Samourai opens with a quote from the Japanese Book of Bushido, which turned out to have been made up by the director). This isn’t so uncommon among old-time filmmakers – Howard Hawks, whose avoidance of sentiment and affinity for depicting men defined by what they do came to mind several times while watching these films, is the all-time great example. But what about this line of Melville’s for a head-spinner: “I am careful never to be realistic…What I do is false. Always.”

Depending how narrowly or broadly one chooses to read that statement, it might mean something, or might merely be a mundane acknowledgment of something basic about cinema. And I think that’s at the heart of the films’ mystique: they’re simultaneously highly precise and considered, depicting events such as police interrogations (in Le Samourai) and the heist in Le Cercle Rouge with virtually real-time fastidiousness, but they never seem tethered to their particular time or place (for a while I thought Le Samourai – particularly regarding the nightclub where much of the action takes place – had qualities of an iconic 60’s film, but later I decided it was barely identifiable as belonging to the decade at all). Regardless of those modern conveniences in his new car, Melville seems repelled by the bric-a-brac of gesture and expression that we recognize with hindsight as belonging to a certain fashion.

Impossibility Of Love

Critic Tom Milne wrote that the key themes of Melville’s work are the “impossibility of love, of friendship, of communication, of self-respect, of life itself.” I watched Le Samourai the day after rewatching Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, and the contrast was fascinating – an intently regimented, analyzed physical and moral space in Bresson’s film followed by something much cooler and resigned and more linear (although both films have in common that the protagonist’s striving is somehow psychically incomplete in the absence of the law as an intervening force). I think it’s likely that one could watch Melville’s films in proximity to those of many other directors, and glean something new from them every time. I hope I work my way through his other works, but if it turns out I stop at these two, I'll still feel thrilled by the encounter.

(2011 postscript - the majority of Melville's other films are also on DVD now; I've seen them all; they're all as great!)

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