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In Which All Of The Men Were Such Interesting Animals

This is the fourth in our ongoing series returning to the films of the French director Jean-Pierre Melville.



Most of Jean-Pierre Melville's films are tight, austere masterpieces. Le Deuxième Souffle consists of a movement in an opposite direction. "A dishonest, aimless meander," wrote Jean Narboni, a noted Godard admirer, of Melville's 1966 effort. At 140 minutes, it is Melville's longest film; but Army of Shadows which approaches it in in length, contains the added intrigue of being a sorrowful, moving, colorful historical film about Melville's time in the French resistance. Le Deuxième Souffle has none of those advantages. It is a simply the most hard-boiled crime film ever made.

There is a lame cliche that a filmmaker is trying to make the same film again and again, getting closer every time. For Melville, that film was John Huston's crime drama The Asphalt Jungle. With Le Deuxième Souffle, Melville not only approached the raw mood and heist plot of his favorite film, he exceeded it considerably when it came to technical craft, depth of character, and outright excitement. While a few critics seemed to shrug off Le Deuxième Souffle, most were gracious enough to recognize there had never been anything quite like it before.

Melville first tried to put Le Deuxième Souffle together with a completely different cast, ending up in litigation with his producers. When he tried it again in 1965, Lino Ventura was now playing the lead role instead of the considerably less mercurial Serge Reggiani. Both men were very accomplished, understated actors, but Ventura was not only the more physical performer, he was ideal for the role of Gu Minda, a career thief who emerges from prison for one last gasp of freedom.

Ventura and Melville, both headstrong individuals, eventually had a falling out on the set of Army of Shadows. Too bad — the Italian actor and the Jewish director were in many ways an ideal pairing. Ventura needed overwhelming instruction lest he become a hammy parody of a swarthy Mediterranean, and Melville was nothing if not hands-on. At times he would force actors to watch take after take of their scenes, until he totally dissociated them from their abilities. It was at that point when he began to build them back up in the way he preferred.

Gu Minda is a doomed character who escapes from prison in the near silent scene that opens Le Deuxieme Souffle. He has one person in Paris who he can turn to — it is never precisely clear whether this is his girlfriend or his sister, but her name is Manouche (Christine Fabréga).

Manouche is one of Melville's very best characters, and in her scenes alone, we get a glimpse of another peripheral story, deeper than a killer's could ever be. At times the pair seems close enough to be an incestuous pair of siblings. In other moments, like a candlelight dinner they share in the attic where Gu hides out after his escape, it seems clear neither expects much from the romantic relationship other than kindness. This afterbirth of an arrangement only lends more feeling to the idea everything in Le Deuxième Souffle, including Paris, was dying of something.

Positioned around this relationship is a stellar cast of criminals and cops. Their closeness and interchangeability makes it so that when Gu is finally tricked into incriminating himself, we can barely blame him for being deceived. The rest of the diverse cast (in ethnicity as well as style) is highlighted by Michel Constantin, a Russian-French actor who portrays Manouche's bodyguard and Gu's friend. If it were not for the completely reasonable behavior of all the people in this milieu, you would be forgiven for thinking Le Deuxième Souffle consisted of a raw, elemental style over substance.

Melville's feel for the fashion of crime turns Le Deuxième Souffle into his most pleasing visual feast. Even in black and white, the speed with which violence regularly occurs inside small rooms and hallways, out of doors and on the road, is visually stunning and sometimes outright alarming. Watching The Asphalt Jungle in close concert with Le Deuxième Souffle, I was stunned by how much more of Paris there is in the latter than San Francisco of the former. It is like one movie shows us a snow globe and the other a life-size diorama.

The film's climactic platinum heist is all the more highly anticipated because Melville forces us to wait for so long. Although Le Deuxième Souffle does drag at times, the director always snaps his audience back into the mise en scène with a bang. Gu's specialty is his use of guns, and the one-time professional wrestler looked athletic enough to fistfight even at forty-six years of age.

Still, Gu recognizes that he is an old man with only so much left to give. "When you are young, you think that men are interesting animals," Melville told Rui Nogueira in his marvelous collection of interviews with the director, Melville on Melville.

I have no illusion anymore. What is friendship? It is telephoning a friend at night to say, 'Be a pal, get your gun and come over quickly' - and hearing the reply, 'OK, be right there.' Who does that? For whom? Until he is thirty-three, a man is convinced he'll always be twenty years old. Then one day he looks at himself in the mirror and sees that the years have gone by.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.


In Which She Thought She Belonged In The Arms Of A Man

This is the third in a series examining the films of the French director Jean-Pierre Melville.

Father Don Juan 


Everyone has the right to be what he is and believe what he likes.

Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) is a lesbian who feels guilt/happiness after her communist husband's death. Her half-orphaned daughter is baptized, because otherwise the girl's Jewish father would mark her for the Nazis, in a French town abandoned by God. As she works her office job, a gorgeous woman there consistently stands behind her, brushing her breasts against the back of Barny's head. This stimulation, and the eye-contact that occurs between these moments of orgasmic, incidental touching, drive her to a local priest (Jean-Paul Belmondo). Such is the plot of Léon Morin, Priest.

Jean-Pierre Melville was very unhappy with the reception to 1959's Two Men in Manhattan, the only film he ever made that featured himself in a leading role. Léon Morin, Priest was based on a well-known novel by Beatrix Beck, who was pleased with Melville's rendition of her work. Melville chose the project because Belmondo, the leading young star of the French cinema, was bound to sell tickets if only he might be cast as a sexy priest. "You should paint your toenails," he tells Barny in one ludicrous scene.

It is very surprising that the Catholic Church praised Melville to high heaven for this motion picture. Léon Morin's parishioners are seemingly all attractive young women whose lives in some way have been corrupted by the German and Italian occupation of France. The film mostly consists of long conversations Barny has with Father Morin – this parade of stars was a necessity for audiences that came to see this unlikely, never consummated romance.

Determined to make a commercial hit, Melville (who was actually in the Resistance) was at his most subtle and subversive on this project. Watching Léon Morin, Priest, you feel that only Melville could have made an art-house movie as a ticket-selling blockbuster. Few people watching the film at the time were in a position to realize how much he was undermining the Catholic religion and, indeed, the concept of faith in general. Ultimately, Barny becomes a Catholic because she confuses her loneliness for a prurient interest in Morin; in reality it is simply an equally impossible iteration of her homosexuality. Despite the fact that it is very difficult to like characters who loathe themselves, Barny is sympathetic for two reasons.

The first is that she is a brave, proud pseudo-Jewish woman who supports the Resistance any way that she can. The second is that she is very beautiful, but she has no idea.

Ensconced in grief because of what has happened to her life and her country, Barny narrates Léon Morin, Priest in the loveliest voiceover in the history of cinema. She sparingly chimes in, never to describe or summarize events, but simply to exist on a perceptual level, and to describe what images could never convey. Riva's throaty chords, mellifluous in Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour, melt everything that surrounds them except Morin, who proposes an idea of Catholicism as an all-loving instrument to remedy the wrongness the world cannot help but contain.

Anyone with even the slightest bit of experience with Catholicism knows that this depiction is utter bullshit, and I say that as an admirer of the sect.

As Léon Morin, Priest spirals to its inexorable conclusion, we await the film's final scene – where Barny will finally have to say goodbye to Morin. She tours his soon-to-be abandoned office above the church, where crosses have been ripped down and the piano returned to its original owner. God has left this church in the same fashion as he abandoned France during those years.

Our final glimpse of Father Morin provides an unexpectedly frightening moment. He is posed as the devil, standing guard outside his underground den. It is only that we realize his admonitions to Barny represented a false, tortured hope in Melville's eyes. In actuality, she was perfect before she ever met Morin and convinced herself that the right thing to do was desire a man.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.


In Which We Live Through All Our Actors

This is the second in a series examining the works of the French director Jean-Pierre Melville.

Mr. Black and Mr. Green


Le Doulos begins with Maurice (Serge Reggiani) returning to Paris on foot in the tracking shot to end all tracking shots. The camera almost never leaves Reggiani's dark face in the film's tragic interiors, but when he is outdoors like in the first moments we view his slight, quick form, writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville gives us a sense of how incidental humanity is to the landscape it inhabits.

Maurice has been released from prison, but he has changed a lot since he went inside. His medical condition – an iron deficiency – has become substantially worse. His first act as a free man is a murder. Later, his best friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) shows up at his apartment and promises various equipment for a robbery Maurice is planning on the home of a rich old man. After Silien leaves the apartment, we see him telephoning his only other friend in the world, Detective Salignari of the local police.

The deceptively fast-paced Le Doulos then segues into one of the most thrilling half-hours in cinema. While Maurice heads off to commit a robbery we know he really does not need to complete, Silien returns to Maurice's apartment, finding girlfriend Thérèse there alone. He beats the shit out of her and ties her to a radiator, all the while wearing the most placid, sociopathic reaction imaginable. This is the scene we turn over in our mind throughout the rest of Le Doulos. It is one thing to overwhelm a woman with violence, but it is another to do it from a place of moral justification.

Later, Silien explains his behavior. Melville flashes back, revisiting the events of film, in the central twist of Le Doulos. This series of reveals seems to explain everything that has happened in a new and more justified light. But a key shot of Silien looking in the mirror suggests there is another possible Silien, another explanation for who he is and why is slapping this woman so hard. Silien's version of events is that Thérèse was the informer, and that he had seen her having a nice lunch with Detective Salignari.

This montage narrated by Silien has always been assumed to be verifiably true. But there are many holes in his account, and we know that Maurice is a gullible listener. Melville uses no music outside of the film's diegesis, and the light jazz that is actually played by a black piano player in a restaurant suggests that we, too, are being taken for a ride. Thérèse is probably innocent.

Quentin Tarantino cited Le Doulos as the main influence on Reservoir Dogs. Like its American twin, Le Doulos is certainly an extremely talkative motion picture, and half of what is being said in any specific scene is likely to be utter bullshit not meant to be taken at face value on the other end of the conversation. Then, suddenly, Melville gives us an unexpectedly tender scene between Silien and his ex-girlfriend Fabienne (Fabienne Dali). Fabienne is the only actual, legitimate person in the entire film, and yet she is completely flattened by the weight of her associations. Her scene with Silien must have been one of Quentin's favorites.

The similarities to Reservoir Dogs are most obvious in the trenchcoats and the similarity in setting. Melville turns Paris into a weirdly-Americanized version of the same. The film's most famous scene, a conversation between Silien and a detective that runs a full ten minutes without a single cut (the boom operator wore all black so as to emit no light that might cause a reflection), occurs in a replica of a New York police station. In many other moments, Melville focuses on anachronisms and a flexibility of design that seems to prefigure the aesthetics of Blade Runner.

As a result, Le Doulos embodies the strange quality of fantasy to it. Belmonde in particular has never been anything close to my favorite actor, too self-contained and himself to inhabit the life of another. Here his unsuitability for the role of stool pigeon makes the film all the more ludicrous, and the effect of seeing him violently beat up a woman is the oddity Melville was going for. It's funny that Le Doulos was eventually released for all audiences in France, since it would merit a full R rating today.

Getting Reggiani for the part of Maurice was key for Melville in making this project, and you can see why. (Reggiani initially demanded Belmonde's role until Melville convinced him otherwise.) He is one of the few small actors that never looks feebly or unimposing despite his size. His dark, Italian looks make him into an alien of the French cinema – there is absolutely no place for him to hide, and running away is a futile gesture. He will always be caught and returned to the prison that is his home. In this noir masterpiece, as in all his films, Melville excels at seeing through the eyes of all his characters. "Making films means being all the actors at once, living other lives," he said later.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.