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Monday
Aug282017

« In Which There Was Something Japanese About Him »

This is the first in a series looking back on the films of the French director Jean-Pierre Melville.

Beauty In Excess

by ALEX CARNEVALE

In 1949, after singlehandedly producing, directing and adapting his first film La Silence de la Mer, Jean-Pierre Melville received respect from the only people that mattered to him. As he recalled to Rui Nogueira,

Jacques Becker was the only French filmmaker to bother himself about me when I was on my own. One day in 1948 I received a telephone call. "Hallo, Becker here. This morning Jean Renoir and I saw La Silence de la Mer, and I'd like to meet you for a drink.' I was a shy young man and found it difficult to ask him what he'd thought of my film. He'd loved it, and won me over completely by talking to me as though I were an old friend. When I asked him, rather timidly, what Renoir's reaction had been after the screening, he replied, 'Well, Jean said something that wasn't very nice from my point of view. He said that La Silence de la Mer was the best film he'd seen for fifteen years. And as I've made quite a few since showing him my first...'

Melville never received the same kind of acclaim from the critics of his native country. (He was born in Alsace in 1917.) In fact, the central film authority of France fined him fifty thousand francs simply for making La Silence de la Mer. This reaction had a little to do with his filmmaking, since the techniques he pioneered and in some cases appropriated from the American films he loved so well, did go against the convention. But mostly it was because he was not very deferential to anyone, and he was a Jew.

Melville, whose name before the Second World War was Jean-Pierre Grumbach, was not exactly the religious sort. ("For me faith, whether in God or Marx, is a thing of the past," he once said.) But he kept in contact with his extended family in Belfort throughout his life, even as he cast off aspects of his ethnicity in order to pass.

The central schism of identity is a key aspect of the original script for Le Samouraï, which he wrote in 1963. For several years Melville struggled to find the right actor for the central role of the assassin whose murder puts him at odds with a detective (François Périer) and his criminal employers. Enter Alain Delon to play the protagonist: Jef Costello. "There was something Japanese about him," Melville observed.

Most of Melville's failures in the cinema occured only because he had the wrong actor for a particular part, either because he was forced into taking someone on (Les Enfant Terribles) or the performer he wanted was unavailable. He saw that Delon's minimal style would suit the type of films he was making by the sixties. Perhaps the pre-eminent French screen actor of that decade, Delon rejected several entreaties until he saw Melville 's 1966 heist tour-de-force Le deuxième souffle. Now, it was only to find the right role.

Melville's concept for the film he finally pitched to Delon was this:

An idea for an alibi. A man commits a crime in the presence of eye-witnesses, yet remains unperturbed. Now, the only alibi you can really count on in life is the one backed up by the woman who loves you. She would rather be killed than give you away. I liked the idea of beginning my story with a story of meticulous, almost clinical, description of the behavior of a hired killer, who by definition is a schizophrenic. Before writing my script, I read up everything I could about schizophrenia - the solitude, the silences, the introversion.

Selling it to Delon was easier than he expected.

The reading took place at his apartment. With his elbows on his knees and his face buried in his hands, Alain listened without moving until suddenly, looking up to glance at his watch, he stopped me: ‘You’ve been reading the script for seven and a half minutes now and there hasn’t been a word of dialogue. That’s good enough for me. I’ll do the film. What’s the title?' 'Le Samouraï,' I told him. Without a word he signed to me to follow him. He led me to his bedroom: all it contained was a leather couch and a samurai’s lance, sword and dagger.

Dealing with a talented but mercurial actor was a lot better than dealing with the reverse. Delon was open to instruction, and in the rare moments of Le Samouraï when Delon is meant to show emotion, Melville was most particular in his instruction. For the most part, Delon's face remains completely implacable; but there is something beneath his steely expression that explains every single facet of his behavior — and his power to take the life of another; likened here to giving life, too.

Watching Le Samouraï today, certain moments and scenes come across as eerily familiar because they have been imitated so many times: the closeness of the cops to their prey, the stylized movement and violence that seems to erupt before letting up when you least expect it. There is also something the slightest bit tongue-in-cheek about the whole affair, from a masterful scene where the boyfriend of Jef Costello's alibi faces an entire room of people who look exactly like him, to Jef's pet bird, a female bullfinch, to the American name of the protagonist.

Costello has a woman vouch for him, and Melville cast Alain's wife Nathalie Delon in the role. The distanced, incomplete intimacy she shares with her husband on screen was not only disturbingly real, the goodbye she says to Delon in Le Samouraï represented a literal end to their real-life marriage. In a side role as the only witness to Delon's murder at a club, the West Indian actress Cathy Rosier seems in a way Jef's only true equal.

The ostensible cause of all the film's scattered events is Jef Costello's mental illness. This important background is never focused on or addressed directly. In the final scene of Le Samouraï, where Jeff perishes, Melville originally planned to give his anti-hero a creepy smile, before concluding that the gesture was too overdone. (He kept the take anyway, as you can see in the above photograph.)

Critics roundly misunderstood the masterpiece. Michel Cournot in Le Nouvel Observateur described the picture as "a very banal gangster story, nothing more," opining that "Delon's vacant face looks like that of a bloated Henry Fonda." Some even went so far as to call Le Samouraï a "pseudo-film," making it completely clear that they did not see the Jewish director as a real French filmmaker. Jean-Pierre Melville never let their ignorance get to him. "Even today, when one says French cinema," he said later, "it has an oddly pejorative taste in both mouth and mind."

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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