“A man isn't tiny or giant enough to defeat anything”
A voracious cinephile in his early youth, Jean-Pierre Grumbach's daily intake of films was interrupted by the Second World War when he enlisted in the FFL (Forces Français Libres) and adopted the nom de guerre by which he's still known to these days: Jean-Pierre Melville. A tribute to his literary hero, Hermann Melville, and his novel Pierre: or the Ambiguities, the director would have his name officially changed after the war. The latter was to shape and inform many of his films and arguably all of his world-view, characterized by a sort of ethical cynicism where anti-fascism is understood as a moral duty rather than an act of heroic courage. Profoundly anti-rhetoric and filled with a terse dignity, his films about the Resistance, Army of Shadows (1969) above all, exemplified his laconic resolve. Very much like his devout love for cinema, Melville's poetic convictions were never declaimed but found their way into the very formal essence of his films. Even the traits of a highly stylized genre like noir in his films are never explicit, on the contrary, they serve a narrative purpose that always exceeded the genre's purview. Never predictable, let alone stereotypical, his cinema rather than borrowing the attributes of American hard-boiled literature and film, absorbed them. The criminal milieu is in his films the stylistic sublimation of human relations that are always transactional, propelled by a self-interested melancholy leading to an existential dead-end.
Melville's beginnings coincide with a critical evaluation of what the French will call “noir” and whose sway on his films can hardly be overstated. In articles like Nino Frank's Un nouveau genre policier: l'aventure criminelle (August 1946) and Jean-Pierre Chartrier's Les américains aussi font du film noir (November 1946), French critics started to highlight and gauge the psychological depth and artistic relevance of the American hard-boiled. In 1948 the famed French publisher Galimard had started translating and publishing a primer of this literary genre in its Série Noire series whose curator, Marcel Duhamel, will later pen the introduction to Raymond Borde's and Etienne Chaumeton's Panorama du film noir (1941-1953). The young director, one of the very first to work outside the established film industry in post-war France, found himself right at the heart of this transatlantic synergy. His feature length debut, Le silence de la mer (1949), is a literary adaptation of a short story by Vercors in whose house the film was shot. The film is a tribute to the resolve of those who, far too few in Nazi-occupied Europe, refused to comply with the creeping normalization of brutality in the everyday. Silence, usually associated with acquiescence, in Melville's film acquires a stoic quality voicing the repudiation of a political disease that cannot be possibly cured, only eliminated. Starring in the film is Nicole Stéphane, who in the 70s would produce her lover's documentary about Israel, Promised Lands (1974) by Susan Sontag.
With Bob le flambeur (1956) Melville tries his hand at the cinematic love of his life with an observational noir that will earn the plaudits of a young Claude Chabrol who had written for the Cahiers du cinéma (n. 63, October '56), under the pseudonym Jean-Yves Goute, a short but enthusiastic article titled “Saluer Melville?” Three years later, the director gets to shoot in New York his own very personal homage to the city and the nocturnal mood of the crime flicks he had fed on from a very young age. Two Men in Manhattan (1959) is the choreographic rendition of Melville's devotion for the American noir and the demonstration of his ability to make it his own avoiding prosy pastiches. The first three years of the new decade will mark a turning point for the French director who had inspired the budding New Wavers from which he would borrow one of their leading actors, Jean-Paul Belmondo. Unusual to say the least is the role Melville assigns to the star of Breathless in his next film, Léon Morin, Priest (1961), where the French actor plays a priest entertaining an erudite spiritual dialogue with a secular parishioner played by Emmanuelle Riva (possibly the only female character in Melville's filmography possessing a narrative depth of her own). It's this decidedly atypical film set in Nazi-occupied France, in which echoes of Bresson are clearly audible, that grants Melville for the first time a wider audience, also thanks to the presence of Riva and Belmondo.
After six feature length films, Melville reaches with Le doulos (1963), based on a Série Noire title by Pierre Lesou, his full artistic maturity. Technically, stylistically and poetically this film represents the first, perfectly rounded work where the filmmaker expresses his full directorial potential. Suspense rhythmically rises in a montage of surgical finesse, the plot moves forward in layers sidestepping the narrative conventions of the genre while interlacing its own internal logic. The final climax pulls all the loose strings together in an act of narrative bravura that denotes a cultivated talent the likes of which French cinema will seldom experience again. From then on, with the partial exception of the southern curiosity of L'aîné des Ferchaux (1963), a remarkable flick set in Louisiana, Melville's cinema will sustain an almost unrealistic perfection. Le deuxième souffle (1966) takes the noir to the heights of a monumental apogee of the genre where words can only belittle the grandiosity of it all. The source material and dialogues by José Giovanni, a veritable giant of French cinema, bring this film dangerously close to the Olympus of world cinema. The immaculate geometry of Alain Delon's facial features is expanded into pictorial magnitude in Le samouraï (1967), the “analysis of a schizophrenic sketched by a paranoid,” in Melville's own words. Practically a silent film crystallized into minimalist gestures and eloquent pauses, this compendium of Parisian Bushido distils the contemplative solitude that will characterize Melville's late oeuvre. The figurative abstraction and languid pulchritude of this film represented, according to Jacques Zimmer writing for “Image et Son,” the “apothéose du style Melville.”
In 1943, exiled in London, Melville had read Joseph Kessel's L'armée des ombres and mulled over an adaptation for the big screen of what he thought was the book on “The Resistance.” A quarter of a century had to pass before the French director realized his ambition and made a capital film on a crucial period of his life. Jean-Louis Comolli considered Army of Shadows (1969) to be “the first and most beautiful cinematographic example of Gaullist art,” an adjective that many in 70s France didn't necessarily perceived as a compliment. The film does endorse the “official” version of the resistance as organised and conducted by General De Gaulle, in whose army Jean-Pierre Grumbach had after all served, but its moral strength lies elsewhere. Namely in its resolute sobriety, its anti-spectacular epic that consistently frames the resistance against fascism as an act of conscience, far from stainless, and yet inevitable. Shadows, not heroes, are the protagonists of a film that never exalt them—predestined interpreters they are of a fate they did not choose. There is no victory waiting for them, only fatigue, loneliness and affliction. The metaphysical impulses already evident in Le samouraï burst into blossom in Le cercle rouge (1970), an existentialist noir painted with the cold hues of grey, blue and green where the only warm touch is the red of blood, of death. Dialogues are reduced to a minimum as Melville displays his iconographic mastery throughout having condensed noir into an immanent palette where images are more expressive words. This and his next film will round out the cogitative determinism that has always animated his cinema, a melancholic wasteland of impossibility. Yet the deafening solitude of his characters, which in his last film, Un flic (1972), becomes a character of its own, is never miserable self-commiseration but always a lucid diagnosis.
Film Forum in New York is running the retrospective Melville from April 28 - May 11, 2017.