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Meticulous compositions in time

Dan Edwards on the cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville

Les Enfants Terribles Les Enfants Terribles
Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-73) was a key figure for prominent directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann and John Woo, yet Australian audiences have rarely been given the opportunity to catch anything but a limited glimpse of his films. Le Samouraï (1967) was re-released in a restored print back in the early 1990s, and more recently a new print of Le Cercle Rouge (1970) toured the country, but Melville's earlier work has long been hard to access. That situation will shortly be remedied for Sydneysiders at least, with a retrospective at this year's Sydney Film Festival.

Melville is best known for his crime films which draw heavily on the American gangster tradition and its film noir variant. The influence of American cinema is clearly evident in his gangster classic Bob le Flambeur (1955), set in Paris' Montmartre. The film's referential, playful tone was a strong influence on the French New Wave, and Melville has a brief but amusing cameo in Godard's 1959 debut, A Bout de Souffle (Breathless). But while they shared a common interest in American genre cinema, Melville avoided the pastiches and deconstruction of genre that characterised Godard's early films. He worked within genre forms rather than taking them apart; exaggerated generic conventions are integral to his fatalistic cinematic world, particularly in his later films. Le Samouraï is typical in this regard—indeed from its opening shot Le Samouraï is the exemplary Melville movie.

Behind the opening credits we see a man lying on a bed in a bare grey-brown apartment. There is no movement, except for his smoking of a cigarette. A birdcage sits beside his bed and we hear a high pitched twittering on the soundtrack. The regular rhythm of passing traffic can be heard outside. The gently drifting smoke is the only random element in the austere composition, which frames the apartment in long shot like a theatre stage. As the titles end, the frame very subtly moves for no obvious reason. Although the overall shape of the shot remains fixed, tiny variations in the image and sound are continually playing out.

This single prolonged introductory shot reveals much about Melville's style. As the Sydney Film Festival's season curator Adrian Danks has noted, Melville pictures the world according to a "modernist tradition in which [it] appears predetermined, patterned, almost geometric."Within these rigorously framed patterns Melville's characters move along apparently fixed lines, alienated from their own actions, simultaneously inside and outside the drama (to paraphrase Danks). Yet as the films progress, the repetitive actions and compositions gradually mutate, change and fall apart. Melville's characters operate within systems and routines, but their fate is never completely predetermined. Rather, there is a constant tension between systems, routines and balanced oppositions on the one hand, and the overarching effect of time on the other. It is duration which above all serves to erode and shift the most meticulous arrangements in Melville's on screen worlds.

Danks has described Melville's cinema as"tonal." To take this concept one step further, Melville's is a cinema of subtly shifting tones in which resonances from the slightest oscillations build until they explode, often in the unexpectedly violent deaths that characterise most of Melville's conclusions. To put it a different way, his films record the results of 2 systems coming into contact: in the case of Le Samouraï, the regimented routine of a lone assassin and police systems of observation and control. Each system gradually shifts as each tries to out manoeuvre the other. Inevitably, it is the individual who eventually succumbs.

This retrospective is important not only because it will bring some of Melville's lesser-known films to light, but also because it is only in a cinema that Melville's tonal approach can be fully appreciated. His meticulous formal compositions, graphic matches and expressionistic colour palettes need the luxuriously wide spaces of the cinema screen to truly come into their own. Although disappointingly non-comprehensive (only 7 of Melville’s 13 features are screening), the retrospective nonetheless includes such important works as Melville's 1949 collaboration with Jean Cocteau, Les Enfants Terribles, his 1969 Resistance film L'Armée des Ombres (Shadow Army), and the aforementioned Bob le Flambeur, Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge.

A Band of Outsiders—The Cinematic Underworld of Jean-Pierre Melville, 53rd Sydney Film Festival; State Theatre, George St Cinemas, Dendy Opera Quays; June 11-19

Dan Edwards will be appearing with season curator Adrian Danks, and regular RealTime contributor Hamish Ford, on a panel discussing Melville's work in the Festival Lounge at the State Theatre, 2.30-4.30pm, Monday, June 19.

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 18

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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