Filmmaker Retrospective: The Controlled Cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville
Jean-Pierre Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, in Paris, France, in 1917, to a family of Alsatian Jews. During World War II he joined the French Resistance and adopted Melville as his nom de guerre after Herman Melville, his favorite American author. When the war was over, he decided to keep it.
Prior to the war, however, Jean-Pierre Grumbach was a zealous cinephile and he even shot some 16mm homemade films with a camera that was given to him by his father.
Throughout his career, from 1946 (the year he made a short film called to Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Clown) to 1972, Melville made thirteen feature films, and most of them were highly acclaimed, not only by the audience and critics, but by such important filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Nicolas Winding Refn, who, one can plainly see, influenced by Melville in one way or another.
For the most part, Melville’s films delve into the underworld of policemen and hoodlums; forging an individual and fresh crime genre with stylized doses of noir, Melville was undoubtedly influenced by American films that were finally available for viewing after the Liberation.
Thus, the very word hoodlum was chosen (originally in reference to Melville’s character Bob the gambler asserting that he has a “hood’s face”) to illustrate and (attempt to) summarize and define Melville’s oeuvre, even though it is not the most descriptive word and his films are not only about heists and hoodlums – a theme which can find an excellent social explanation in wretched, post-war France -, Melville, as a post-war filmmaker, who was also directly involved in the war (see Code Name Melville), portrayed the difficulties and the distresses of wartime France with sensibility, as one can observe in his “unofficial” war trilogy.
Moreover, Melville was a fluent adaptor, most of his films derives from literature, but his approach is quite filmic, and the way he directed and employed mise-en-scène was a cornerstone (though he regarded directing a “tedious formality”, he rather enjoyed writing and editing).
He was the godfather of Nouvelle Vague (Godard’s jump cuts in Breathless owns a lot to Melville’s advice), one of the few independent filmmakers who owned a studio, and one of the artists who hoped for a new cinema: “It seems to me that all over the world, cinema has reached its definitive though imperfect form as a ‘monument’, whose keystones are action and movement. So do we have to stick forever to the rules, followed a thousand times, which, year in year out, produced five good films? Can we not try something new? Can we not learn from the lessons of the past and try to renew this art form?”
Melville was the breath of fresh air that French cinema needed, and when he died in 1973, at 55, he was already an established filmmaker. In Breathless, Melville plays a writer, Parvulesco, and Jean Seberg’s character, among other interviewers, asks him “What’s your great ambition?” and he answers with the following: “To become immortal, and then die.” That was exactly what Melville did.
1. Le Silence de la mer aka The Silence of the Sea (1949)
Melville’s first feature film was based on a wartime novel written by the French author Jean Bruller, who, by the time of World War II, had published his books under a pen name, Vercors. Bruller was a member of the French Resistance, and Le Silence de la mer became a symbol of resistance.
In the opening scene of the film there is a man standing on the pavement by a stone parapet; while he is in the foreground, a man carrying a briefcase appears in the background. The man leaves the briefcase near the first man, he opens it, and under some clothes and newspapers there is a book titled Le Silence de la mer.
The man looks through the pages, which include a dedication to the memory of an assassinated poet, Saint-Pol-Roux; the other pages of the book are the opening credits of the film, presenting the cast and the crew, which remind the viewer very much of the opening of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, released in 1941.
Additional information about The Silence of the Sea has stated that the film does not claim to provide any solution to the relations between France and Germany. Most of the film takes place in the living room of an old man’s house, which he shares with his niece (Nicole Stephane).
Melville applies a common literary device, the off-screen narration, provided by the old man (Jean-Marie Robain), which is very interesting when the old man and his niece hardly speak a word throughout the film. It is 1941 and France is occupied by Germans; the old man has to allow a German officer (Howard Vernon) to lodge in his house.
Melville’s mise-en-scène is balanced, with mildly lighting and serene camera movements; it is also noteworthy how resourceful Melville is when framing characters through doors or windows, or using mirrors along with eye-line matches.
Every night, when the old man is smoking his pipe and his niece is knitting, the German officer steps in and speaks his mind, commenting on the differences between French and German culture and so on. The old man and his niece only listen to the officer, and they do not say a word.
Melville’s framing is quite precise; the film includes two shots that are especially memorable for their beautiful composition: it is winter and Werner von Ebrennac (the German officer) says that his room is very cold so he is going to warm himself by the fire for a moment — though he is framed in the center of the shot, we can see the fire, as well as the old man’s left hand and both of the niece’s hands knitting in the margins of the frame.
Minutes later, there is a low-angle shot from the hearth, and we can see the officer’s face (this happens more than once in the film, and since it is known that Melville is one of Tarantino’s favorite directors, it looks like a clear-cut inspiration for Tarantino’s trademark, the trunk shot) and he ponders “How is this different from a fire at home? The wood, the hearth, the flame are the same, but the light is different.
This one depends on the objects it lights, the people in this room.” The dialogue and mise-en-scène perfectly match. Furthermore, Melville’s use of close-ups and his editing (made by himself and Henri Decaë) are rather classic, with fade-ins and fade-outs, wipes, and also an interesting pan shot from the officer’s face to a church, in which he recalls Chartres in a flashback.
Then, there is another flashback, in which he tells about his former lover. Near the end of the film, when Ebrennac meets other German officers, Melville uses a sequence shot of nearly two minutes, combining a travelling and overhead crane shot.
The Silence of the Sea may seem boring due to the German officer’s monologues and the resolute silence of the French denizens, in addition to the annoying clock ticking in the living room. However, Melville’s debut is a great film, acclaimed both critically and commercially (also particularly appreciated by Vercors, who had sworn he would burn the film if he did not like it).
2. Les Enfants terribles aka The Terrible Children (1950)
Melville’s second film, Les Enfants terribles, is another adaptation. It is not just any adaptation though; his first feature succeeded well enough to have attracted the attention of Jean Cocteau, who granted his eponymous novel to Melville for an adaptation. Cocteau also provides off-screen narration in the film.
As the opening credits are rolling, there is an ethereal shot, in black and white, in a sort of Dutch angle, depicting a tree and a woman standing next to what appears to be a deathbed — later on, the same shot will appear again, revealing what it is all about.
The rhythm of the shots in Les Enfants terribles is more dynamic than in Le Silence de la mer, maybe because now Melville is working with children (though the cast members seem much older), instead of adults. If Nicole Stéphane, did not speak much in Melville’s previous picture as the old man’s niece, now she gives a hell of a performance as Elisabeth, Paul’s older, protective but insidious sister.
Les Enfants terribles, as the title indicates, could easily be placed in the “troublemaking children” genre; the opening sequence of the film takes place at school with Paul (Edouard Dermithe) looking for a boy named Dargelos. “There was snow that evening. Parts of the school were under construction and became a perfect battlefield for the boys”, Cocteau narrates.
Dargelos hits Paul in the chest with a snowball; he falls to the ground and his nose bleeds. Paul is then taken home by his friend Gerard (Jacques Bernard); he soon grows ill and is nursed by his sister who also takes care of their mother, who dies later. Paul and Elisabeth have an uncanny relationship; they share the same room and play a sort of game that is not made clear during the film, but, in sum, seems to consist of annoying each other.
Because of his poor health, Paul cannot go back to school and he is afraid he will not see Dargelos again, who has been expelled from school after throwing pepper in the principal’s face. Paul keeps a photo of Dargelos, who played a female lead in school, Racine’s Athalie. The homoerotic tone between Paul and Dargelos is not explored beyond that, which may leave viewers feeling relentlessly curious.
Elisabeth decides to get a job, so she starts working as a model and there she meets a girl named Agathe (Renée Cosima). Agathe, just like Gerard, goes to live with the siblings; against Paul’s will, she takes the mother’s bedroom. The viewer can tell that Cosima plays both Dargelos and Agathe; thus, Agathe becomes intrigued when she sees Dargelos’s photo and thinks it is her.
Les Enfant terribles is a film with startling young performances, driven primarily by Elisabeth’s manipulative deeds. In addition, the sibling relationship is so nuanced and dark that it reminds one of Isabelle and Théo in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers; the denouement of Melville’s second film is as tragic as it is unimaginable.
3. Quand tu liras cette lettre aka When You Read This Letter (1953)
Melville’s third film is not as good as his previous ones. However, it too thoughtfully portarys the intricacies of human beings and their relationships. The title, When You Read This Letter, may allude to Max Öphuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), or, rather, to the particular line from the letter, “By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.”
The characters of the film, unacquainted with each other, end up all connected in a sort of comedy of errors. There is nothing comic, however; Melville executes a bitter sequence that leads to tragedy once again. The plot, written by Jacques Deval, revolves around the womanizer Max Trivet (Philippe Lemaire), the sisters Thérèse (Juliette Greco) and Denise Voise (Irène Galter), the rich lady Irène Faugeret (Yvonne Sanson), and Max’s friend, Biquet (Daniel Cauchy).
Max gets involved with the three of them in unexpected and crooked ways: Irène is a married woman, Denise is raped by him (she, therefore, attempts suicide and leaves a letter) and her sister forces him to marry her; and indeed, he falls in love with Thérèse after all.
This is a mere spoiler, but the plot is not over yet, Melville gets even more bitter. Stylistically speaking, it is noteworthy how Melville employs dolly shots on his characters in order to focus on them and reveal tension or distress. This technique is more emphasized in his next film, the noirish Bob the Gambler.