There are films that are a director's last produced work. But there are also final films, ones which have nothing to do with a career, but rather are pictures that face a cinematic abyss or void, the "end of the line." They travel to an edge you can sense, the farthest edge of a precipice, and they peer past, or look back, or look down and see the void reflected in themselves.
Jean-Pierre Melville's last film, Un flic, is also a final film, a picture that envisions the ruins laying beyond cinema's construction of society, of masculinity, of modernity, of genre. Within these ruins the only activity left to the inhabitants is ritual—perfected rites which imitate and re-live the standards of others and of the past—and a belief in ritual which seems the only escape from the pervasive nihilism and emptiness of the ruined world.
In this funereal procession of 1972 France there are only criminals and cops—Melville's ghosts, phantom-actors haunting cinema's remains—and each make their rounds doing what they are inscribed as criminals and cops to do. Each group, each individual, seems to be playing by rules in no way defined by the vacuum-world Melville presents, empty but for the totems and temples of genre cinema honed to a gem-like polish and Bresson-like essentialism. Anachronistic iconography, the fedoras, trenches and 1911 automatics, the steel-eyed stoicism, austere, monochromatic palette and weary melancholy, the psychologies suppressed to the point of discreet expressionism, the moral ambiguity—these are the costumes of bodies, faces, aspect and values passed on from histories and myths of society and cultural conventions to be re-enacted by Melville's heroes as the last remnants of meaning and worth.
Indeed, Un flic's population appear to be knowingly performing an act passed to them by an unknown source. Unlike Michael Mann, whose characters seem to be forcing themselves willfully to be sincere, to believe their own ethos, and unlike Tarantino, whose characters mirthfully are aware of the cultural history of their own role-playing, even when playacting in the past, Melville's men and few women are actors cast from an older regime's mold—potentially even an imaginary mold, an artificial myth made of purposefully misunderstood gangster-noir fiction and vague Japanese values—and perform as the mold requires them to, stiffly, unconsciously, in the present. Self-annihilation, the path taken by the criminals in Un flic like 1930s Hollywood gangster anti-heroes and 1960s yakuza/samurai rebels, seems the only act one is able to control when behavior and values have been predetermined. Yet even these acts, as ennobled as they are by both Melville and convention, are secretly expected of them, and like good, model reproductions they fulfill the use for which they were created—a creation with its own destruction built in as part of its function and as part of its art.
In this "use," the lives lived on both sides of the criminal divide—a divide, Melville notes, also artificially formed and kept in place through the following, and living, of rites and conventions—there is none of the thrashing of a contemporary fellow existentialist cinema like that of Robert Aldrich. There is no interest in Aldrich's tormented dynamism of making ethical choices in a world where the right and wrong hang opaque in a void. Melville's heroes are following a script—they seem born knowing the path they must trod, the behavior they must subscribe to, the choices they must make, though not the reasons why. The ossified atmosphere, the taking of the noir fatalism and inscribing it in the very destiny of the grain of the celluloid, the steady, morose pageantry of the costumes, of the actions, of the process: it is the creation of a ritual out of what is left, the ruins. (Not far, then, from Oshima's 1971 The Ceremony.)
The ritual extends to the perfected stitching together of the mise en scène. Melville methodically constructs a contemporary France formed from a dialectical alternation, and ultimately a welding, of realism and artifice; nearly any location-based shot or scene (beach front apartments, Parisian streets, modernist architecture) will be followed by one of supreme falseness (back projection, painted backdrops, model helicopters and trains). These structural-formal reverses are echoed in four key reverse shots in Un flic. The first is of the film's cop-hero (Alain Delon) facing, shot/reverse-shot, a dead blonde woman:
Next we see the cop face to face with his transvestite informer (Valérie Wilson), another person dressing up:
And later we find the criminal-hero (Richard Crenna) facing, shot/reverse-shot, a self-portrait of Van Gogh:
The stone-faced men confront death, anguished, alternate versions of themselves, the past, and artistic creation, and, in Melville's form, are equivocated with it; their blankness momentarily reflects these fragile human things, becoming them and then dissolving them into their emptiness. The final version of this pattern features Catherine Deneuve (herself looking like the dead woman, like the transvestite, and, by implication, like Delon), who sneaks into a hospital in a nurse's garb (more costumery) and murders a man. Melville shows Deneuve looking...and looking...and looking:
The missing reverse shot is of the man she killed, the void over which she and the film peer. Delon and Crenna face the masks of torment created by others in the world and see only themselves; Deneuve creates the torment herself and we do not need to see what she has wrought; we know the ritual she has performed. Her face is the mask of death, and nothing lays beyond it.
New York's Film Forum will be showing a new print of Un flic from April 19 - April 25.