Jean-Pierre Melville @ 100
A series in New York, a premiere in Los Angeles, and a site to explore.
Though he was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach on October 20, 1917, New York's Film Forum is celebrating the Melville Centennial a bit early with a series that launches on Friday with a screening of Le Doulos (1962) and runs through May 11. Also on Friday, by the way, the COLCOA French Film Festival in Los Angeles is presenting Le Cercle Rouge (1970) along with the with what the festival hails as the world premiere of a new restoration of Melville’s first short film, 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown (1946)—which screens at Film Forum on Sunday. As Anthony Lane points out in an overview of the Film Forum series in the New Yorker, Melville, who'd joined the French Resistance in 1940, took on his nom de guerre not for Moby-Dick but rather "another Melville novel that triggered the awe of his French namesake, who described Pierre: or The Ambiguities, published in 1852, as 'a book which left its mark on me for ever.' The peculiar title, you feel, could have been dreamed up by either man." More from Lane:
Melville was far from prolific, and his death, from a heart attack, in 1973, came too soon; he was only 55. On the other hand, he compensated for the modest tally of his films by insuring that pretty much every one is a gem. String them together, and you end up with a necklace to die for—a necklace, let us say, like the one in Bob le Flambeur (1955) that a croupier named Jean (Claude Cerval) lays proudly on the pillow of his wife, whom he is striving to please. She immediately asks where he got the money to buy it. We don’t see the conversation that ensues, but we don’t need to, because we know what will happen. In Melville country, all slopes are slippery, some of them fatally so.
"When I was younger, the words 'honor among thieves' often came to mind when viewing Melville's films," writes Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice:
These stories are filled with noble sacrifice, with stone-faced men who will die before ratting out comrades or betraying loved ones. Sometimes, the people who inspire such loyalty are just chance acquaintances. The deadly partners in 1970's Le Cercle Rouge barely know one another; they are united by the fact that they are outlaws and each has skills the others need. Sometimes, the characters feel they serve a higher purpose: the French Resistance, in the war epic Army of Shadows (1969), or God, in the episodic and contemplative 1961 drama Léon Morin, Priest (which, immediately following the retrospective, is getting a week-long run at Film Forum in a never-before-seen director's cut that restores thirteen minutes of new footage).
But over the years, I've found something more clinical at work in the films. We may romanticize these characters' cool demeanor, their hard glances and impenetrable quiet—but the more we watch them, the more we realize that Melville himself is often horrified by them.
Jonathan Stevenson in Brooklyn Magazine on Army of Shadows: "Immediately after the war, viewers probably would have found it too downbeat and inglorious. Ironically, when released in 1969 in the fervid wake of the shameful French-Algerian War and the massive left-wing social protests of May 1968, the film was disliked on account of its rather muted Gaullist tilt. In the fullness of time, it scans as an admirably poignant if cold-eyed dose of realism."
Yannick Vallet, a photographer and director of several documentaries on cinema, has launched Melville Delon & Co: typologie d’une solitude, a site that tracks the routes followed by Alain Delon in Le Cercle Rouge, Le Samouraï (1967) and Un Flic (1972) and documents the locations of all three films. Updates, 4/28: The Voice has posted a "beautiful reminiscence" by Volker Schlöndorff that ran in the July 6, 1982 edition. "Schlöndorff had worked with Melville as an assistant in his youth. Here, he describes the man as he knew him—as a friend, mentor, cinephile, and icon." "In both his art and his life," writes John Powers for Vogue, "this cool, brainy eccentric lived up to his claim, 'I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing.' … While I’ve never seen a Melville film that I didn’t enjoy—including his remarkable debut, Le Silence de la Mer (1949), a formally daring story about the German Occupation—I must confess that his crime movies feel a bit interchangeable. It’s hard to remember which one is which. But who cares? After all, the plots are merely ritualized frameworks which allow him to show his ability to create, as he boasted, a real-looking artificial reality that pulls you right in." Updates, 5/1: "Melville's first feature film Le silence de la mer (1949) is an anti-cinematic jewel," writes Sonya Redi at Screen Slate. "Shot on a very tight budget by stellar cinematographer Henri Decaë, and taking place in a single room (in the original author's house), the film's austerity sets it apart from not only Melville's later works but most other films as well. Based on the novel by the same name, the film rejected cinema's conventions of the time in order to stay fiercely loyal to the text, of which Melville was a resolute admirer. Written by Jean Bruller under the pseudonym Vercors, and published clandestinely in 1941, only a year after France's defeat, the underground novel was considered by many to be the Bible of the Resistance movement." Also: "For many years fans of Jean-Pierre Melville have shrugged their shoulders when discussing his third feature film When You Read This Letter. Lacking the obvious Melville touches, the film veers closer to the romantic melodrama category than his other pictures and is seen as a commercial outlier for a director who spent his entire career making distinctive, independent work…. That being said, it does possess recognizable fingerprints." Updates, 5/2: "Never predictable, let alone stereotypical, his cinema rather than borrowing the attributes of American hard-boiled literature and film, absorbed them," writes Celluloid Liberation Front in the Notebook. "The criminal milieu is in his films the stylistic sublimation of human relations that are always transactional, propelled by a self-interested melancholy leading to an existential dead-end." Meantime, Melville 100, a series at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, runs from June 8 through August 12. Update, 5/4: "Le Cercle Rouge is the closest Jean-Pierre Melville got to his ideal, a mix of Jacques Becker’s Le Trou and Bresson’s Pickpocket, a blue-gray nocturnal reconnoitering of the flimsy chains keeping men in their place," writes Scout Tafoya in Brooklyn Magazine.