Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

An Amateur of Quality: Postwar French Cinema and Jean-Pierre Melville's le Silence De la Mer

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

An Amateur of Quality: Postwar French Cinema and Jean-Pierre Melville's le Silence De la Mer

Article excerpt

I consider myself an amateur, and I'd like to remain that way. This may not seem very modest, but as Flaherty said, "In cinema, change Isn't brought about by professionals, but by amateurs."

-Jean Rouch

EVERY CINÉPHILE HAS A FAVORITE IMAGE of Jean-Pierre Melville. Nowadays, admiration for Melville's distinctive films and the legend of their maverick creator resonates widely in cinema culture. A still from an interview with the French filmmaker Cédric Klapisch in a recent issue of Premère magazine provides one such point of departure (Gravelines 90). Klapisch is shot in high contrast black-and-white, posed insouciantly in a dark, beat-up leather jacket. A 1940s gangster-style fedora, its brim pulled down low over the director's eyes, casts a long shadow over his impassive facial features. The portrait is labeled simply: "Melvillian chic."1 In visual shorthand, Klapisch's photo-homage invokes succinctly an aesthetic of the underworld-rogue and taciturn masculinity, defiance, the suggestion of criminality, a distant echo of Hollywood and film noir. More than thirty years after his death, here and elsewhere, Melville's reputation reaches powerfully into the twenty-first century.

Melville today is a mythologized auteur, hailed as much for his unconventional persona as for his actual films. Offscreen, Melville is remembered as a dynamic, outspoken, cigarsmoking iconoclast in a Stetson. Onscreen, he is celebrated for a career of fetishized films: the underground Resistance parable Le Silence de la mer [The Silence of the Sea] (1949), the offbeat New Wave harbinger Bob le flambeur [Bob The Gambler] (1956), policiers such as Le Doulos [The Finger Man] (1962) and Le Deuxieme souffle [The Second Breath] (1966), and muted thrillers like Le Samouraï [The Godson] (1967) and Le Cercle rouge [The Red Circle] (1970). Known for his collaborations with iconic French stars-Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon, Lino Ventura, Catherine Deneuve-Melville is also famed for his fierce creative independence. Later in life, he bought and ran his own film studio, doggedly controlled his productions, and became a cited inspiration for filmmakers as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, Neil Jordan (who remade Sob le flambeur, as The Good Thief, in 2003), John Woo, and Quentin Tarantino.

Melville's career is at last being reappraised, and its significance is belatedly emerging. In 2002, Richard Neupert's invaluable survey, A History of the French New Wave Cinema argued for Melville as a "renegade role model," in style and technique, for the Young Turks that followed him (63-72). In July 2003, the British Film Institute officially recognized Melville's body of work by hosting a complete retrospective of his films. Later that same year, Ginette Vincendeau's monograph, lean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, outlined Melville's career through textual analyses of his films, in particular their representation of gender. More recently still, high profile 35mm and DVD restorations have made Melville's once-obscure films, notably Le Cercle rouge, available for a new generation of enthusiasts.

Despite these advances, our knowledge of Melville's emergence in the 1940s, and, concomitantly, his formative role in postwar French film history, is far from complete. Most studies of Melville, indeed, continue to appraise him in abstract terms, as the source of cultural discourse, an artist ripe for interpretation. Such approaches have led to a systematic neglect of the logistics and practical contexts that shaped Melville's filmmaking directly. Most crucially, Melville's radical position as a self-styled amateur-his work as the producer as well as the director of his films-has been widely ignored. Hence, vital questions remain unasked and unanswered. As Melville began his career in cinema, which industrial imperatives did he react against? Why was piecemeal, nonprofessional independence Melville's solution? And how did these unorthodox methods manifest a controversial yet influential new model of individualized production? …

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