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Entries in jean-pierre melville (6)


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.


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


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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