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Jean-Pierre Melville

Out of the Past: Le Samourai

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Jeff Costello, a professional to his white-gloved fingertips, makes his trenchcoated way through a Parisian nightclub and downstairs to the office of the club’s proprietor, where—fulfilling with his usual cold efficiency the terms of a contract—he shoots the man dead. But just as Costello comes out of the office, another consummate professional, the club’s stylish black pianist Valérie, emerges from another door and sees him. She takes a good, long, quizzical look at his face. Most of the narrative twists that follow in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (seen seven years after release in a Vancouver skid road theater, dubbed and retitled The Godson!), depend upon this short scene and its surprising sequel, when Valérie deliberately fails to identify Costello in a police lineup. Melville makes the puzzle of Valérie’s motivation as teasing to us as it soon becomes to Costello himself. Admirers of this director, however, will not be surprised to learn that the extraordinary impact of the film is minimally dependent upon mere plot.

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Videophiled: Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Le Silence de la Mer’ on Criterion

SilenceLe Silence de la Mer (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature by Jean-Pierre Melville, was both a labor of love based on novella that was considered an almost sacred text by the French Resistance and a maverick, self-financed gamble to break into the film industry as a director. A decade before the nouvelle vague, Melville laid the groundwork for the movement with an independent production that incorporated the limitations of resources into the fabric of the filmmaking.

Set mostly in the small farmhouse of a middle-aged Frenchman (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stephane) where a polite, cultured German officer (Howard Vernon) has been billeted, the film features only one character who speaks on camera (the rest of voice-over narration and reflection, thus limiting the necessity of live sound recording for most scenes). The French hosts offer their own resistance by refusing to speak in the officer’s presence, or even acknowledge him. “By unspoken agreement, my niece and I decided to change nothing in our lives, not the slightest detail, as if he didn’t exist. As if he were a ghost.” Instead of taking it as a slight, the officer treats it as an invitation to indulge in monologues on art and culture (he was a composer as a civilian), the barbarity of the German people, and his dream that French influence will civilize his culture. German though he may be, he is no Nazi and the film is as much about his disillusionment with his own people as it is about the strange and beautiful relationship between these people who might have liked and even loved one another in a different life.

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DVD/Blu-ray: Léon Morin, Priest

Léon Morin, Priest (Criterion)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s reputation rests predominantly on his amazing string of crime dramas but the director (who during World War II was active in the Resistance) also made three films about the life during the Nazi occupation. Léon Morin, Priest (1961), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo (fresh from Breathless) as an unconventional, at times radical young priest and Emmanuelle Riva (of Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour) as an atheist attracted to his intelligence and his charms, is his second and most unusual. The film opens with occupation and ends with liberation but focuses on the hothouse atmosphere of intimacy and separation, of desire and denial, in the private meetings of Léon (Belmondo), the unconventional, at times radical and undeniably handsome young priest, and Barny (Riva), a young widow (her communist husband was killed in the war) with a half-Jewish daughter and a strong attraction to Léon.

It’s quite the chamber drama, a war movie set in intimate spaces and played out in theological debates and guarded discussions. Melville plays on the power of Belmondo, a handsome, young, newly-minted movie star of French cinema in 1961, as a strong, striking, confident priest in a town of women without men. Behind the guarded figure in a black cassock and a serene, sly smile is a virile yet celibate man surrounded by desirable women and he wields that power to draw them into the faith and, chastely, flirt with them. It’s a cagey manipulation where he both seduces and judges their weakness as he gets them to confess the sins of their attraction, and you wonder if his ability to frustrate their desire is in some way his substitute for sexual pleasure. Belmondo never presents Léon as anything but dedicated, but his confidence and sexual presence makes him a magnet. All eyes are drawn to him when he’s on screen, a fact of which he’s very aware. There’s more behind his enigmatic smile than simply an object lesson.

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Army of Shadows and the Unforgiving Code of Jean-Pierre Melville

[Originally published in slightly different form on GreenCine in 2006, in conjunction with the American theatrical release of Army of Shadows.]

Jean-Pierre Melville in Breathless
Jean-Pierre Melville in "Breathless"

Jean-Pierre Melville is surely the ultimate cult auteur in the French cinema. Spiritual godfather of the French New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard paid tribute to Melville with a generous cameo in his debut feature Breathless), Melville was a maverick in the system from his astounding, independently produced debut La Silence de la Mer (1947), a chamber drama set in the Nazi occupation of France, to his final film, the buddies-turned-nemeses heist thriller Un Flic (1972). He’s a favorite director of John Woo, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann (whose coolly attenuated crime thrillers owe a great debt to Melville), and his masterpiece Le Samourai (1969) was an inspiration to both Walter Hill’s The Driver and Woo’s The Killer.

Yet only in the past few years have his films really become available to American audiences, largely through theatrical rereleases by Rialto and lovingly produced DVDs from Criterion (who have released eight of his thirteen features since 2002). With Un Flic (aka Dirty Money) on DVD from Lionsgate (and earlier from Anchor Bay), that brings the number up to nine. It’s like they are being slowly doled out, like the last precious drops of water on a desert trek.

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