Friday, December 12, 2008

In Praise of Jean-Pierre Melville

I’m very excited to finally post this article about
Jean-Pierre Melville. I’ve been working on this one for ages. I have seen every Melville film that’s available on DVD. I love the man! Frequently, after watching one of his films from Netflix, I’d go straight to the store to buy a Criterion Collection DVD to soak up all the extras. He is a French filmmaker wildly popular in the 60’s, a man who loved America so much that he changed his last name to Melville in honor of his favorite author, Herman Melville. Mostly, his films were about crooks and gangsters, and they all wore trench coats and fedoras (in a time when no one in France ever wore them). He died in ‘73 of a heart attack.

John Woo once wrote, “Melville is God to me.”

I don’t know if he’s God, but he’s definitely one of cinema’s apostles.

Okay, first thing’s first. Check out the vid at the top, a trailer for Army of Shadows. This is a film that admittedly tested my patience at times with its lingering scenes and over-indulgence. However, if you sit through the whole film, you will be rewarded. And you might find, as I did, that some of the scenes and images stick with you long afterwards. The video is also a great summation of his visual style.

His films used to be legendary, but it wasn’t until the last five years or so that America has been given the chance to digest his films on DVD. Army of Shadows wasn’t released on DVD in the U.S. until 2006. Le Doulos was released this year, and it’s fabulous! You can get a full list of his films
here. But let me share my favorite Melville films:

1) Le Samouraï (The Samurai)
2) Tied: Le Doulos (The Hat) & Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler)
3) Army of Shadows
4) Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle)

All you screenwriters (and Melville fans) will love this. I transcribed from the Bob le Flambeur DVD parts of a 1961 radio interview with Melville by Gideon Bachmann during the Venice Film Festival as part of a radio show. Melville talks about how tough writing is for him:

JPM - It's more difficult to write. I'm quite sure it's easier to make a film to explain something, but it's very difficult to write a good story, to be a man like Faulkner or Hemingway. It's very difficult.

GB - Well, many people would contradict you and say that it's much easier to be alone in a room with a piece of paper and a pencil than it is to be in a studio with thousands of people and lights and so on.

JPM - No, that's not right. No. It's very difficult to write.

GB - Do you think it's a matter of self discipline?

JPM - Yes, and when you read many years later what you wrote many years before you become aware that it's very bad.

GB - But that can happen with films, too.

JPM - Of course.

GB - Do you think you are less likely to make mistakes in cinema than you are in writing? Is it easier to do a wrong thing that you would not like to see in films? It seems to be much easier to make a mistake in film because it's such a tremendous apparatus, whereas in writing you cross off a line, change a label, or put out another edition. It's easier.

JPM - The perfection of the form is easier to grasp on film rather than in written words.

GB - That's very interesting. I wonder why that is. Do you think it has anything to do with the way people react to the various mediums? Do you think people are more critical for writing than for films?

JPM - I tried two things - to write and to make films. Films is easier.

GB - You mean this is an empiric decision? You found this based on your own personal experience, not an abstract theory.

JPM - Yes. subjective.

GB - I think that answers my question about why you make films. Simply because you find it easier.

JPM - I need to express something. I, of course, tried when I was young to write and I found it impossible.

I have a variety of observations as I went through his films.

* On Melville’s transformation as a writer and director: His earlier films like Les Enfants Terribles and even Bob le Flambeur, were loaded with dialogue AND voice over. Later, he famously embraced a minimalist approach to dialogue. It is the natural growth of any filmmaker & screenwriter to rely less on words and more on visuals, is it not? Consider all the dialogue in this classic scene from Le Samouraï. No subtitles, unfortunately, but all that’s said is basically, “What do you want?” “To kill you.” This is nearly 4 minutes, which (in a perfect world) should translate into four pages of your screenplay:

Consider the looks between these characters in Un Flic. Catherine Deneuve is married to Richard Crenna while also sleeping with Alain Delon. But you didn’t need me to explain that, did you?

Or this opening bank robbery scene from Un Flic, which was Melville's final film before his death.

* Very few of his protags have arcs. Bob le Flambeur was a supposedly reformed thief who fell back into his old ways. He couldn’t change who he was. In the end, he joked about doing it all over again. The lone wolf assassin in Le Samouraï never changed.

* No sympathetic protags, but rather characters with mystery and many times
depth. We’re surprised and fascinated by the gradual revelation of different sides to his gangster characters. Les Enfants Terribles was torturous to watch because every character was so despicable. But what made, for me, the other unsympathetic characters so enjoyable is that they weren’t FLATLY unsympathetic. Depth is the key to creating true fascination of a character.

* No backstories, either. We observe these men as they are. That they are so mysterious (or have
depth) are the reasons we stay glued to the screen. Also from Senses in Cinema: In 1963, Raymond Durgnat pertinently suggested that “Melville has a way of watching, rather than sharing, his characters' perplexities. He seems not to mind what they do, provided it suits them. He is not unkind, but feline. Durgnat's astute reading of Melville's work nevertheless over-emphasises the purely detached and relatively amoral perspective that it offers. The subtle scene described above is one of many moments in Melville's cinema in which his mostly male characters appear to be both within and outside of a dramatic situation, able to engage in the emotion of the moment while also stepping outside of it to contemplate a configuration of events, actions and bodies.”

* Like
the Nolans, Melville embraced an almost magician’s approach to scenes. His films are filled with wonderful surprises! For example, in Le Cercle Rouge, the protag sits in a diner eating. Outside, unbeknownst to him, a bad guy sneaks up to his car. The protag keeps staring off into space as he eats in the diner. The bad guy breaks open his trunk, sneaks in, and closes the trunk. The protag eventually finishes, gets up, pays his bill, and gets into his car - only to drive into a field and skid like a mad man over the mud to torture the man in his trunk. He knew all along. There are wonderful moments like this in all of his films.

* Style triumphs. He never embraced realism, which give his films a sense of timelessness. He was meticulous about details, particularly the machinations of pulling off a heist, but it was always purely imagined. Melville once said, “I am careful never to be realistic.… What I do is false. Always.” His locations were both real and purely imagined. As John Flaus wrote: “[Melville] does not seek to simulate the world but to create anew from the materials of the world. The severe form, the precise detail, the delicate effect are part of a style which shows rather than refers to its subject.” Of Le Samouraï,
Girish (one of my favorite bloggers) wrote: The lack of interest in realism is one of the movie’s most attractive aspects for me. Nobody characterized it better than Melville himself: “I don’t want to situate my heroes in time; I don’t want the action of a film to be recognizable as something that happens in 1968. That’s why in Le Samouraï, for example, the women aren’t wearing miniskirts, while the men are wearing hats—something, unfortunately, that no one does anymore. I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact re-creation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me: I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing.”

* Le Doulos & Bob le Flambeur, which were tied for second on my personal list of favorites, contained superbly TIGHT PLOTS, which I’d say surpasses most screenplays even today.

* Melville was always playing with suspense. On the one hand, he'd surprise you and explain it later, as he did often in Le Doulos. On the other hand, he’d let you know something’s about to happen and drag it out. Of Le Samouraï, Ebert
wrote: The movie teaches us how action is the enemy of suspense--how action releases tension, instead of building it. Better to wait for a whole movie for something to happen (assuming we really care whether it happens) than to sit through a film where things we don't care about are happening constantly. Melville uses character, not action, to build suspense.

* There is a strange satisfaction in observing the process of things, like the meticulous process of how to pull off a heist, which today’s audiences probably don’t have the attention span to sit through.

* There is also the satisfaction of watching these men go through their daily rituals, which usually involves putting on their trench coats and making sure their fedoras are perfect as they look at themselves in the mirror. Let me quote
Senses in Cinema again: These types of stoic, often joyless and strangely sacred rituals are for Melville's characters a way of distancing themselves from the world, of maintaining an impossible purity or of simulating a rigorous professionalism. It is in the moment when this ritual, professionalism or purity breaks apart that the characters' demise is prefigured or marked. In Le Samouraï, for example, it is when the protagonist breaks from his routine and swerves minutely toward some kind of personal involvement, that his fate is sealed. Despite the blank amorality and explicit anti-humanism of his murderous actions it is the 'purity' of his existence and work that enables his character to survive. In keeping with this, Melville often eschews conventional character psychology and motivation, refusing to provide back stories or explanations for his characters' actions. For example, we never know precisely why particular individuals (particularly Simone Signoret's seemingly unimpeachable Mathilde) inform on their comrades in L'Armée des ombres, and yet his handling of characters (including those who necessarily break these codes) still has a rare sense of balance and grace. Typically, Melville's characters are unwavering in their commitment to a particular moral code or mode of action. Melville's characters rarely change or transform – they have an understanding of the world and their place within it – but the relationships between them and their milieu evolve gradually through a process of acceptance and dawning mutuality. Thus, Melville's films are mostly concerned with the rigor of any character's attitude to being in the world, the moral, experiential and ritual codes that make sense of their actions (and life). These codes are attached to all of Melville's central characters, granting their actions and attitudes a “sort of purity,” whether gangster, assassin, German officer, Resistance fighter, communist sympathiser, or priest.

* We, the audience, as well as the characters know their fate. In his 1955 book, “Bob le Flambeur,” Stephen Schiff wrote, “And to Melville, the fate of the gangster-movie hero is inseparable from his style or his morality: it's part of the form he occupies, just as his Cadillac and his chivalrous manners are. A man has no choice; if he's in a gangster picture, he looks a certain way, behaves a certain way, and dies a certain way. Genre is destiny – and ethics. In fact, Melville's films express a philosophy that only a Frenchman could have dreamed up – and only a movie-mad Frenchman at that: it's genre existentialism.”

* It’s fascinating the relationships between characters, none of whom can be trusted, and all linked to each other and yet also opposed. They are faithful and potentially disloyal. They are together and alone. Tom Milne wrote that the key themes of Melville's work are the “impossibility of love, of friendship, of communication, of self-respect, of life itself.”

* On the endings, let me quotes
Senses in Cinema one last time: The endings of Melville's films tell us much about the moral codes and frameworks that they set up. In many of his films the majority of the central characters end up dead. These endings – which often have the feeling of ritual – reestablish the intimate connections that have been created between characters whose relationships are made impossible by a variety of legal, social, moral and criminal codes... It is also in respect to this focus on the relativity of social roles and functions (often with characters on either side of the Law), as well as their explicit revision and abstraction of the crime genre, that one can see the clear influence of Melville on directors such as John Woo, Johnny To, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and Quentin Tarantino. It is also in these endings, particularly in his last five films, that Melville tells us something about the end of a kind of classicism; of a classical world of archetypes, moral and physical integrity, and ritualised ceremony that is passing from view. They also prefigure the end of a cinema that Melville considered to be a “sacred thing.”

Melville once said, “I believe that you must be madly in love with cinema to create films. You also need a huge cinematic baggage.”


Christina said...

I wouldn't know what the hell you're talking about except that my film-loving friend Donna dragged me down to a small art theater in a bad neighborhood of SF last winter to see Army of Shadows. I was completely blown away by the visuals and yes, his lack of dialogue.

I'll have to check out the other films on your top five list. Side note - I love the pic of him and the cat!

Mystery Man said...

Le Samourai is definitely the best one in the bunch. No question about it. You can actually see his cats in, I think, Un Flic.


wcmartell said...

Melville is one of my favorite directors, and a huge influence on many of my early scripts. SECOND BREATH is the film where Lino Ventua uses two guns - and I have an old script where the hero double-draws from two shoulder holsters. Both QT and JW swiped this, too.

I saw most of his films at the old UC Theater in Berkeley (which may no longer exist).

- Bill

Anonymous said...

Jean-Pierre Melville was a contemporary of the writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989) and his books are hauntingly close in genere and pace. I just finished "Dirty Snow" circa 1943 and the amoral protag could jump right off Melville's screen.

Mystery Man said...

Bill - That's a great idea! I may have to use that myself. Hehehe...

Anon - Fabulous! I may have to read that!


Sarah said...

Thank you for writing this. I'm doing a bit of a voluntary crash course through French culture, beginning with nouvelle vague cinema. As someone who happens to be working on a screenplay of her own, Melville's influence proof that one learns by seeing and doing.

Thanks again.

Mystery Man said...

Sarah - Thank YOU! Great to meet you.


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