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.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Leon Morin, Priest on TCM

Criterion's DVD/Blu-ray debut

Jean-Pierre Melville made his reputation as a defiantly independent director of cool gangster thrillers, beginning with elegant, elegiac Bob le Flambeur (1955) and culminating in the austere masterpiece Le Samourai (1967), with Alain Delon as an existential assassin, and the heist classic Le Cercle Rouge (1970). But the director, who during World War II fought in the Resistance, worked for French intelligence in London and served in the Free French forces in the liberation of Italy and France, also made three films about life in Nazi-occupied France, including his debut feature Le Silence de la Mer (1947).

Léon Morin, Priest (1961), an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel by Béatrix Beck, was his second film about the occupation. The traditional details of the occupation–the physical presence of German soldiers on the streets, the black market, the activities of Resistance and the deportations of Jewish citizens–are in margins of the central story, and that, in an unexpected way, is the point. Life has become normalized, and what a strange, anxious normal it is, a disconnected existence on hold.

Jean-Paul Belmondo stars as the unconventional, at times radical young priest Léon Morin but you could say he is the object of the film while Emmanuelle Riva plays the subject: Barny, the young widow of a French Communist and a mother who sends her half-Jewish daughter France to the country to protect her from the Nazis. Riva’s Barny narrates in a pithy, matter-of-fact manner, offering simple facts (“Our city had been occupied by Italian troops,” she observes in the opening scenes, and later simply says “The deportations began”) with no personal commentary. She’s no Resistance fighter but neither is she a collaborator; she and her friends baptize their children as cover and perhaps it is her resentment at having to undergo such a ritual that inspires her, and atheist, to go to confession with the express purpose of telling off the new young priest.

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The Criminal Code of “Le Cercle Rouge”

Melville's criminal code

Le Cercle Rouge (Criterion)

Crime cinema has never been so meticulously and coolly executed as in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1970 heist classic starring Alain Delon and Gian Maria Volonte as coolly professional thieves, Yves Montand as a soused sharpshooter who regains his self respect when he joins their team, and Andre Bouvril as the unrelenting cop on their trail.

This is Melville’s world of romantic doom, an irresistible cinema fantasy of loyalty, professionalism, sacrifice, and codes of honor in a rarefied world of classy, uncompromising crooks and “Le Cercle Rouge” is perhaps the ultimate expression of this universe: a world of men without women where cops and criminals are locked in a symbiotic co-existence. Melville’s most austere work strips even the characters down to the essence of their professionalism and their integrity. But if the film lacks the emotional connection of Bob Le Flambeur or the tantalizing irony of Le Samourai, its doomed underworld perfection is, well, perfect.

The Blu-ray debut features all the supplements of Criterion’s DVD release a few years back: Excerpts from the 1970 documentary “Cinéastes de notres temps: Jean-Pierre Melville (portrait en 9 poses),” video interviews with Melville friend and editor of “Melville on Melville” Rui Nogueira and with “Le Cercle Rouge” assistant director Bernard Stora, 30 minutes of rare on-set footage featuring interviews with director Melville, and stars Alain Delon, Yves Montand, and André Bourvil, archival French television interview footage with Jean-Pierre Melville and Alain Delon, original and 2002 rerelease trailers, and a 24 page booklet with new essays by Michael Sragow, Chris Fujiwara, and John Woo, excerpts from an interview with composer Eric Demarsan, and excerpts from Rui Nogueira’s interview book with the director, “Melville on Melville.”

More Blu-ray releases and reviews at MSN Videodrone

Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ on TCM

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Deuxième Souffle has long been one of my favorite Melville films, since I tracked down a 16mm print and presented it in the campus film series at the University of Oregon in the mid-1980s. I watched it twice, then twice again at the Sanctuary in Scarecrow, which for a brief , glorious period was the smallest screening room in the city of Seattle.  Criterion rescued the film from near oblivion, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned, with their excellent DVD edition. I explore the film and the DVD for the Turner Classic Movies website.

Lino Ventura fills out a trenchcoat with authority

Le Deuxième Souffle is less well known than such celebrated films as Le Doulos, Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, and has been regrettably neglected due to its long unavailability. The long overdue home video release reveals a transitional film between the romantic genre play of Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos and the austere and existential Le Samourai. The moments of light humor and romantic diversions from his earlier films have been banished from this portrait of the criminal underworld and the romantic code of underworld honor comes at a steep cost. Melville’s direction is more stripped down and austere, his camera more sensitive to the minutiae of detail and his exacting pace and meticulous editing attuned to the weight of time. The careful casing of a room and the tense wait for the arrival of a target are as meticulously measured as the exacting details of a robbery or a shoot-out. It’s all there from the brilliant opening scene, a prison break where we never actually see the prison, only the abstract pieces of walls and doors and guard towers that the three convicts must navigate to reach their freedom. In the gray light of early dawn, they wordlessly make their leap, the oldest of the three straining to keep up with the youngest, huffing as he tramps through the forest and races to catch an open boxcar on a passing train.

That criminal elder is Gustave ‘Gu’ Minda, played by stocky, broad-shouldered Lino Ventura, an icon of French crime cinema (including such classics as Touchez pas au grisbi and Classe tous risques) and the very model of stoic professionalism. Our first glimpse reveals a vulnerable man, perhaps past his prime, out of his element and persevering by sheer determination. But once he’s back in his own environment – Paris, Marseilles, the brotherhood of a gang on a meticulously-planned heist – he’s not just the consummate professional, he’s the unflappable anchor who personally takes care of every potential problem, whether it’s a pair of two-bit thugs who try to rob Manouche (Christine Fabrega), Gu’s former lover and trusted friend (she’s referred to as his “sister,” which is slang for mistress), or a motorcycle cop guarding an armored car with a shipment of platinum. But he’s also resigned to his fate: “I gambled and I lost,” he shrugs when Manouche tries to cheer him up.

Read the complete piece on the TCM website here.