I’d like to thank Geoff Gardner and Cinema Reborn for asking me to introduce Jean-Pierre Melville’s final film, Un Flic, which is also the final film in this aptly titled Jean-Pierre Melville: Master of Shadows and Silence retrospective.
Born in 1917, Melville was given a hand-cranked camera for his sixth birthday and from that moment on became obsessed with film. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema, and loved American movies, in particular the dark mean streets of 1940s Los Angeles film noir. He loved all things American and always wore a large Stetson hat and sunglasses. He drove around in big American cars and loved American food, perversely preferring American mayonnaise, in a tube, to French mayonnaise! When the German army occupied France during WWII, Melville, who was 23 and Jewish, joined the Resistance, later using his experiences in a trilogy of films that included, what many argue is his finest film, L'Armée des Ombres or Army of Shadows.
|'...cold blue eyes', Alain Delon, Un Flic|
Un Flic is the third film in a trilogy of Melville’s film noir-inspired gangster movies that include Le Samurai and Le Cercle Rouge or The Red Circle.When Un Flic, which means A Cop, was released in America, they changed the title to Dirty Money. No doubt they thought American audiences would find this more attractive. Melville’s favourite actor, Alain Delon plays the Cop, which was unusual because he usually played gangsters in Melville’s films.
Melville wanted to create black-and-white film noir movies in colour and in Un Flic he reached new heights. His colour palette again matching Delon’s eyes, but skewing toward the blue, rather than the greenish blue of cyan. Delon’s androgynous, slightly dissolute, good looks and his solitary forays into the Parisian underworld, suggesting both a sexual and a moral ambiguity. A reference to what Ginette Vincendeau calls ‘the porous bond between crime and the law’ (i). Melville, a self confessed misanthrope (ii), thought gangsters were ‘pathetic losers, but the gangster story, with betrayal as one of its driving forces, was a very suitable vehicle for the particular form of modern tragedy called film noir.’ (iii). Melville’s main themes were betrayal, honour and the impossibility of love.
His work has been hugely influential and remains so to this day, with filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino citing him as a major influence. Described as the godfather of the nouvelle vague, or new wave, of young French filmmakers in the 1960s, Melville was, and still is, the filmmaker’s filmmaker. In the 1950s Francois Truffaut, among other aspiring young filmmakers, developed ideas of the auteur, or author, theory of filmmaking in their famous magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. What drew them to Melville was his masterly grasp of mise-en-scène, and that he worked independently, outside the cumbersome studio system, on extremely low budgets, so he proved it could be done. His films defied expectations and surprised audiences. He was a risk-taker who wanted to leave people wondering rather than tie up all the threads in a Hollywood ending. He didn’t make American movies in France. He interpreted the great American themes in his own way, adapting them for a French audience.
Of course he was their hero, he was the quintessential auteur, a master of silence and shadows, who returned again and again to the same themes and obsessions right up until his untimely death in 1973 at the age of 55.
Watching his films I was struck by the melancholy masculinist worlds he creates where women are, in the main, excluded and by the solitary warrior characters he creates. Melville detested strong emotional bonds and even though he was married, and his wife was a key figure behind the scenes, he claimed ‘The only solution to avoid betrayal was to live alone.’ (iv). I started to wonder if ‘wounded masculine’ might not be a better description.Where might these bruised characters have come from? Why are they so silent, isolated and unable to trust? Why are women so absent?
The first clue is in his name, for he changed it from Jean-Pierre Grumbach to Jean-Pierre Melville when he joined the Resistance (see identity card above). It was a ‘homage’ to his hero, the American writer Herman Melville. A great deal has been written about masculinity in the works of Herman Melville. Richard Brodhead argues that, Moby-Dick is ‘so outrageously masculine that we scarcely allow ourselves to do justice to the full scope of masculinism.’ (v). Herman Melville wrote about men for men and his work suggests a ‘patriarchal, anti-feminine approach that adheres to the nineteenth century separation of genders’ (vi) where men and women occupied different spaces and where there were certain roles men were expected to fit into.
‘It just so happened that men were considered superior to women during the 1800s.’ (vii). Of course the turn of the century brought the first wave of feminism and France, in the late 1940s when Melville started making films, was the intellectual cradle for the second wave with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
|Opening shot, Army of Shadows|
The second clue lies is the German occupation of France during the war, for French masculinity took a big hit under the Nazi occupation. When asked how he felt about the occupation Melville said: ‘The first feeling we experienced was shame. Grief of course. But above all it was shame.’ (viii). This would drive him to join the predominantly male world of the Resistance where he went undercover, working like a criminal in the shadows. It was dangerous work and betrayals were common, yet Melville said ‘It was a fantastic time.’ (ix). And one where he ‘got a taste for action.’ (x) Resistance fighters became tight-lipped warriors adhering to a strict code of loyalty. Those who survived torture without betraying their comrades were the real heroes. Yet, in the aftermath of war, they carried emotional wounds and this, for Melville, included a loss of idealism.
|Simone Signoret, Lino Ventura, Army of Shadows|
Melville claimed he loved women, yet they are absent, untrustworthy or dangerous (usually because of their emotions) in his films. Even Simone Signoret in Army of Shadows, as the respected and loved Resistance fighter Mathilde, is undone by her emotions, for she insists on carrying a photograph of her daughter and this compromises her when she is arrested by the Nazis. She must die, like all warriors who make mistakes, but the great tragedy is that she must die at the hands of her comrades. The only time I noticed the word love mentioned in a Melville film was in Army of Shadows where the protagonist says ‘Love has meaning for me only as it applies to the Chief’ the leader of the Resistance. When the two men meet they actually hug. But this love is connected to bravery, heroism, and the philosophy of the human condition.
I found the third and final clue buried in the film Léon Morin, Priest. Described as ‘occupying an awkward place in Melville’s oeuvre’ (xi) it has a female protagonist and appears to sit outside Melville’s primary concerns with men as warriors and the closed world of men. Yet Melville chose to adapt this story for the screen. Why? A ‘Don Juan’ celibate priest who resists the love of women, who carries a male code of discipline and control similar to the Samurai fits. But a female protagonist, whose world we must enter? Then, in an unusually intimate scene for Melville, the Priest played by Jean Paul Belmondo, reveals to the widow Barny, who has fallen in love with him, that he had been treated badly and thrashed as a child, not by his father which she assumes, but by his mother. She asks ‘Were you afraid of her?’ but he doesn’t answer. It’s a good question.
|Catherine Deneuve, Un Flic|
In Un Flic Catherine de Neuve is gorgeous, lounging in doorways draped in Yves Saint Laurent haute couture and in a relationship with the main gangster, yet she meets Delon’s cop in a hotel room. Her character has very little substance, but it does fulfil the role of woman as dangerous, woman who can’t be trusted, woman to be frightened of.
Melville loved to place bogus quotes that speak to his themes in the opening sequences of his films. He attributes the one in Un Flic to Eugene Vidocq, a famous 19thcentury escaped convict who became the Chief of Police, but the quote is pure Melville.
I would like to finish with a quote from Emma Goldman who said: ‘Beware of lone wolves, for they will charm you, but then they will steal your chickens.’ Jeanne Pierre Melville will charm you too, but then he will serve up a delicious, gourmet, chicken dinner. Enjoy.
Margot Nash is a filmmaker and an Honorary Associate Teaching and Research at the University of Technology Sydney. Her credits include the experimental shorts Shadow Panic (1989) and We Aim to Please (1976), the feature dramas Vacant Possession (1994) and Call Me Mum (2005) and the personal essay documentary The Silences (2015).
[i]Vincendeau, G. Jean Pierre Melville – An American in ParisBFI Publishing 2003 p. 200
[ii]Leuthy, C. Melville, Le Dernier Samourai53min Dir: Cyril Leuthy, Roche Productions, FRANCE, 2020
[iii]Gallot, C. & Gruère, F. Variances – Jean-Pierre Melville.Broadcast Sept 11 1970Le Samouraï DVD extra.
[v]Brodhead, R. H. Trying All Thingsin New Essays on Moby-Dick. Cambridge UP, 1986. p. 9
[vi]Wilson, S. Melville and the Architecture of Antebellum Masculinity. American Literature, vol. 76 no.1, 2004, pp. 59-87
[viii]Vincendeau, G. p. 8
[ix]Jean Pierre Melville Cineaste,Chronique de France,1968. L'Armée des Ombres DVD extra.
[x]Grible, R. Invitè du Dimanche 1969 L'Armée des Ombres DVD extra
[xi]Vincendeau, G p.66