Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Discovering Jean-Pierre Melville - Shelley Jiang considers LE CERCLE ROUGE (France, 1970) and LE DOULOS (France 1962)

Cast and Director, Le Cercle Rouge

I expected to come out of Le Cercle Rouge drained from all the plodding on of strategy and the unwavering machismo of men skulking in trenchcoats. Instead, Melville begins his film by placing his hero in the midst of his unhappy personal life. Corey's (Alain Delon's) eyes reflect a doleful submission to the loneliness of life outside of prison. The woman he loved is married to another guy from the mob so he trades some pictures of her for the guy's money and heads back to Paris for another nefarious job.  


Key to how refreshingly humane this film feels is the various ways in which its characters perform their criminality. For our heroes, the job is a way of dealing with private disappointments, failures, and uncertainties, all of which can be displaced or redeemed by the trust, discipline, and rationality required to complete the job. Otherwise, in the disarray of life, their actions are controlled by impulse and hesitation. (The marksman is in the throes of a drug addiction before taking on the job. Early on in the film, when Corey is still adjusting to the peculiarity of being on the outside, he packs a gun under his coat, then decides to store it in his glovebox, only to decide to take it out again a moment later and carry it anyway.)

"trenchcoat, moustache" Alain Delon, Red Circle

In contrast, Melville's villain, Commissaire Mattei, appears to have his life in order. Instead of a caricature of incompetence or perversion, Mattei is (chillingly) dignified and ordinary in his habits: he owns three beautiful cats which he dotes on whenever home and the framed pictures on his study of his wife or daughter suggest the conventionality and stability of nuclear family life. His methods in the end amount to extortion but there's no desire for cruelty, only a drive towards outcome.  This is a cheeky subversion from Melville: conventionality as a little sinister because it demonstrates one's success at enforcing (in one's own life and in others) order, conformity, and a directness in the pursuit of empirical results. 


The robbery scene in this film is regarded as a 27-minute masterpiece. The silence, the suspense, the visual focus, THAT BULLET!, etc... I was gunning for the success of the robbers, but it's honestly a little implausible that the security guard would take so long to signal the alarm. He lays on his back, eyes open, pondering, for what seems like several minutes, before he springs back into action.

Yves Montand, Le Cercle Rouge

Some moments are so reserved that they evoke the atmosphere of the time of day it is; the private cold blue light of early morning at Rico's apartment, or the warm intrusion of daytime light cast across a room through the billowing curtains of Corey's untouched apartment when he goes back for the first time. This is one way in which to consider why Melville's work is so... 'cool': the heist operation remains logically uninfluenced by the bleak and tragically romantic mood of the film, but the heroes and the audience actively strain against its plangent messaging to stay focused on the stakes.  


This film didn't convert me into a big fan of French noir but I still found it very absorbing and, actually, very heartfelt. 

Jean-Paul Belmondo, Le Doulos

Le Doulos  is arguably the best Melville film out of the handful I have seen so far. 
There is a refreshing degree of pathos in the way that Melville explores the character of the police informant ("Le Doulos") Silien, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. Whilst Maurice hatches his revenge on Silien for presumably informing on him, we watch Silien negotiate a way to secure Maurice's early release from prison, and frame mobster Nuttheccio with whose girl (Fabienne) Silien is having an affair. 


Fabienne and Silien's meeting at the club later in the film introduces a new humanising thread of the narrative: Silien wishes to escape the criminal world for a new one in a countryside with Fabienne. He wants to secure his freedom from the work of constant betrayal and compromise, and Fabienne's freedom from Nuttheccio. Silien is just a young man in love but involved in dishonourable activities in order to navigate his entrapment by the older formidable crime figures and coercive policemen who surround him.

Le Doulos


The film becomes an exploration of the unique moral position occupied by the remorseful betrayer. Is it enough for Silien to desire an escape from his work as an informer after he has already performed the betrayals of one for so many years? Will fate allow him this escape or will he need to pay off more of his dues? Indeed, if Silien has cemented his fate as 'Le Doulos', will he need to die now that he no longer lies? 


The film leaves us guessing right to the end, and we continue to really care because of our desire for Silien's redemption. Melville cleverly chose the strapping young Belmondo for the role so he could hold out the prospect of an ending in which two attractive young runaways are united and find a way to live happily together. We remain intrigued, having been entertained with the possibility, as to whether Melville's indifferent noir universe could allow for such a warm ending. 
I was hoping I would see something else by Melville that would return to the theme of the criminal's loneliness in Le Cercle Rouge. This film does so with more compassion and a more gripping plot.


A season of six films by Jean-Pierre Melville, previously screened in Sydney at the Randwick Ritz, will commence with Le Cercle Rouge  in Melbourne on Sunday 13 June at The Elsternwick Classic and on Monday 14 June at The Lido in Hawthorn


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