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

Silence
Criterion

Le 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 man (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.

Melville called it an “anti-cinematic” film, and he creates the expressiveness in what remains unspoken, the glances and gestures that take on grand drama in the minimalist presentation. It’s also been described as Bressonian, to which he replied “I’m sorry, but it’s Bresson who has always been Melvillian,” referring to the transformation of Bresson’s style after the release of Le Silence de la Mer. There’s a little bit of cheek in that statement perhaps, but it also shows the confidence and certainty that define Melville’s style and sensibility and Le Silence de la Mer is an assured work. Every frame is under his control and the mix of strength and delicacy that defines his greatest crime dramas is fully formed here. Made just a few years after the liberation, with the occupation still a fresh wound to the French soul, Melville made a film with a German officer as a tragic hero.

This is the ninth Melville feature released on disc in the U.S. by Criterion and their third Melville Blu-ray. The film was shot on a tight budget with a variety of different film stocks and in the face of various mishaps that called for creative manipulation to make flawed shots work. Those imperfections are evident in the HD digital restoration, as is the beauty of the simple images shot by Henri Dacaë, who also made his debut on this film. Their collaboration continued for decades.

Blu-ray and DVD, in French with English subtitles, with a tremendous wealth of supplements (also in French). The archival offerings include Melvilles first film, the 1946 non-fiction short “24 Hours in the Life of a Clown” and a very short interview with Melville from 1959. There’s a substantial interview with film scholar and Melville expert Ginette Vincendeau (about 17 minutes), who is articulate and offers informative background on the project and the production, and two excellent documentaries. Code Name Melville (2008, 76 minutes) explores the filmmaker’s experience in the French Resistance and the films he made about the Resistance and Melville Steps Out of the Shadows (2010, 42 minutes) is about the making of La Silence and includes an interview with actress Nicole Stephane among the participants in the film. The accompanying booklet features an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and an excerpt from Rui Nogueira’s interview book Melville on Melville.

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