What I do is false – always.
I once had a curious dream, which I somehow associated with the Melville films I had been thinking about. Chatting with a group of friends in some populous exterior location, I noticed a shortish, grey-bearded man weaving his way towards us through the crowd. I remarked to my companions, ‘Ah, here comes Dai Vaughan.’ So who was ‘I’ in this scenario?
* * * * *
Let us start with Bob le flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville’s first crime film – with the start of Bob le flambeur, indeed: a sequence which becomes more and more strange the more closely we look at it. The film opens with a pre-dawn pan across Paris as seen from Montmartre, a misty vista punctuated by a scattering of lit windows and one or two street lamps. The pan is frozen for the credits, which are accompanied by assertive music, then continues and is joined by a commentary which informs us that, ‘This story begins during the few minutes which separate night from day, during the half-light of morning.’ There is a touch of the travelogue about this narration, which takes us from the ‘heaven’ of Le Sacre Coeur to the ‘hell’ of an open square – it appears to be the Place Pigalle – where a few people are already about their business as the illuminated signs above the night-clubs switch off to the sound of an insomniac saxophone. We are introduced casually to a young woman who will later figure prominently in the action, and then finally to Bob (Roger Duchesne), seen first as a reflection in the dark window of a small room where he and others are seated playing dice around a table.
Bob makes his throw, does not win, and rises to leave. Someone asks if he is going to ‘Le Carpeaux’, but he shakes his head and mimes ‘sleep’. As he passes through the restaurant area, tatty with the remnants of last night’s revelry, we notice that a vibraphone melody, which we have assumed to be part of a background track, is being provided by a solitary musician still playing after everyone else has gone. He is glimpsed only briefly, preceded by the mysterious shadow of his mallets. Out in the street, rejecting with a shrug the offer of a taxi, Bob pauses to adjust his tie in front of another window. This is an early example of what will prove a recurrent motif in Melville’s work: criminals looking in mirrors to check their appearance. Usually it is their hats. This appears at its most extreme in Le Doulos, where Belmondo devotes the few moment between being shot and falling dead to straightening the brim of his trilby. Though it would be going too far to call these films self-referential, there does seem to be an implication that the main purpose of being a gangster is to fulfil a role – possibly the role of a gangster in a film.
As Bob begins to walk slowly around the square, he is overtaken by a street-washing truck and has to step sideways to avoid its jet. He sees the young woman to whom our attention has already been drawn, and pauses to watch as she is whisked away by an American sailor on a motorbike. This whole episode is held together by a complex sequence of people’s movements and camera pans, some continuous and others complementary, some from above and others at street level, some conventional and others decidedly anomalous, which in toto lend it the character of a cinematic ballet for man, woman and water cart. Bob now arrives at a kiosk where the owner greets him by name and gives him his papers and his change with a few gruff words, to which he replies, ‘Bon soir, Papa.’ Wishing someone good night at the beginning of the day, it is the first thing he has said.
An off-screen voice hails Bob. It is a police inspector offering him a life in his car with two other officers. He asks to be dropped off at Le Carpeaux, and a brief conversation scene follows, at the end of which Bob gives the inspector his newspapers. The continuing dialogue between the police will fill us in on Bob’s background. He, meanwhile, has entered a back room at Le Carpeaux – a brasserie – and silently joined another game. This whole opening ends with a fade out which is followed by a fade in on what appears to be the intersection where ‘hell’ began; and there is a swift pan to the exterior of a bar, which is held as a woman – unknown to us – runs past. It is almost as if we were about to repeat the sequence which has just ended. Then, with a cut to interior, we find we are in the presence of three new characters.
While it would not be true to say that the ‘balletic’ construction of this opening, in which unorthodox cuts are sustained by its sheer rhythmic verve, reduced the actors to moving parts in a machine, it is certainly the case that the structure is not, in familiar fashion, subordinated to the dramatic action. There is a sense in which we, the viewers, are holding the action together as we hold a piece of music together in the act of listening to it. The mood is of a melancholic thoughtfulness; and the drama itself scarcely adheres to the usual conventions of motivation. Bob completes a circuit from silence to silence. Having signalled that he is too tired to go to Le Carpeaux, he ends up going there; he buys two newspapers and almost immediately gives them away (in a Hollywood movie we would assume, alert for plot points, we were meant to interpret this as a response to something the policeman had said). Bob, it seems, inhabits a different world from that of normal concourse as represented by the conversation of the cops – a world, perhaps, that is closer to the logic of film itself.
* * * * *
I have mentioned Le Doulos in passing. As so often with Melville’s work, the opening titles are superimposed upon a continuous movement: in this case a backwards track to hold Serge Reggiani in wide shot as he advances, with the scuttling gait of an injured cockroach, along the walkway of a railway bridge. The titles end, we move in close to him as he stops, then cut to a pan which finds him approaching across a vacant space punctuated by mysterious ash heaps from which gusts of grey flake blow across the dismally infertile earth. In the foreground there appears a wooden handrail which, as Reggiani reaches it, is revealed by a change of angle to be that of the porch of a two-storey detached house which it is almost impossible to imagine could be located in the landscape we have just been shown. Reggiani enters, pauses to adjust his hat before a broken mirror, then climbs the stairs to a room where a fence is examining stolen jewellery.
A dispute ensues which ends with Reggiani shooting the fence, pocketing his money and a handful of jewels, then making his escape through a window as a car pulls up outside. Night has by now fallen, and Reggiani emerges from an alley into a patch of land where nothing is visible but a solitary street lamp – an area barren as the stage in Waiting for Godot. He stoops down under the lamp and begins burrowing at the soil, which is stony and resistant, in order to bury the gun and the valuables. It takes a long time. Traditionally film-makers increase the tension by speeding things up; Melville does it by slowing them down, in his instance by showing just how long it can take to dig what, even so, proves to be a worryingly shallow hole. At one point we hear running footsteps, and Reggiani crouches lower until they have passed. He has nothing behind which to hide; and at once it strikes us that there is something quite irrational about this scene. If you wanted to bury evidence on vacant ground, the very last place you would choose to do it would be under a street lamp, where there was the maximum chance of being observed. And it is hard to believe that the footsteps have not been introduced precisely to draw our attention to this.
Implausibility seems to have a special appeal for Melville. In Bob le flambeur the eponymous Bob, a former crook turned gambler, is tempted out of retirement by the prospect of one last, spectacular crime, the robbery of the safe at a casino in Deauville. He assembles a gang hand-picked for the purpose, and we then see them plotting out their complex moves on an area of waste ground – seemingly a car-breakers’ lot – marked out with a full-scale plan of the casino in white lines as if on a sports pitch. The assumption seems to be that such unconventional marking-out of an open space would attract no notice or, if it did, no curiosity. Later we are shown the heist taking place in the casino itself. But this is not the actual event. It is not even a rehearsal for the actual event. What we are being shown is – most unusually for cinema – something that was meant to take place but didn’t. And the reason it did not take place is that Bob, having become engrossed in the gambling, forgets why he is there. He has, it seems, lost interest in his own criminal plot – and hence, in effect, with the plot of the film he is in. Had he not done so, the sequence of what did not happen might, albeit in less sanitised form, have become a sequence of what did. Bob’s odd detachment from his own narrative, signalled from the opening, ends up by calling into question its grammar.
* * * * *
The plot of Le Doulos confronts us in quite a different way with uncertainties about the status of what we are shown. Much of the action makes little obvious sense, either to us or to the central character as played by Reggiani. Only towards the end does a fellow-crook, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, give a clear account of what has been going on. Critic Ginette Vincendeau has suggested that we are nevertheless left in doubt as to whether even his story is true. But this raises the question of what may be understood by ‘truth’ in a work of fiction. Belmondo’s explanation accounts – so far as I can see – for all the hitherto puzzling or seemingly inconsistent aspects of the narrative; and that is probably as much as one can ask. But it is also possible the film wants us to chew upon precisely such conundrums. One thing which may incline us to ‘trust’ Belmondo’s statements in the above scene, aside from the fact that it is accompanied by flashbacks claiming the same visual status as those events previously taken for ‘reality’, is the way his close-up is lit: a heavy shadow from the brim of his hat, like a lifted visor, leaving his eyes and lower face illuminated with an almost saintly openness. We can hardly fail to be reminded that Melville had cast Belmondo as a Catholic priest in his previous Léon Morin, prêtre, a film quite exceptional in Melville’s oeuvre and against which his others can usefully be measured.
The opening titles, again unusually for Melville, are superimposed not upon a long, continuous action take but upon a simple black background on which a vertical and a horizontal bar are animated into various conjunctions including that of a centrally-placed cross. This is, however, followed by a sustained shot panning with Emanuelle Riva as she approaches and passes on her bicycle to discover, from the presence of Italian soldiers, that France has been invaded. The story enacts a conflict between supposedly Marxist atheism and religious faith against the background of the occupation. The first encounter between Riva and Belmondo takes place in the confessional, where she has come to attack him for the misdeeds of the Church; and it develops into a long ideological debate which is shot in a very strange way. Beginning with conventional close-ups, panning to Belmondo and back, it moves on as the argument gains in intensity to a two-shot, both characters in profile and looking at each other, the partition – if, indeed, it is still there – rendered invisible by the direct side-angle; then, as if this were not enough to upset our stylistic confidence, it does a complete 180 degree switch, so that the two confront each other still in profile but from the opposite directions. Since we know that no such camera angles could be obtained in a genuine confessional, the implication seems to be that intellectual disputation can override spatial conventions. As the film progresses, however, the intellectual conflict is complicated by psychological factors. The woman falls in love with the priest, and her desires seem to be reciprocated, though it is unclear to what extent the priest admits this to himself.
Wherever our own sympathies may lie, it is hard to imagine anyone watching this film without being exercised by its moral challenges. Riva’s character is shown from the start as having a weakness for authority figures – specifically, the chief secretary in the office where she works. Is she then culpable for trying to incite a sexual reaction from the priest, who she knows is forbidden to respond; or is the priest at fault for deliberately leading her on and then protesting a shocked innocence? Such concern, we surely recognise, is in revealing contrast to the attitude usually demanded of us by Melville’s films, which is one of moral neutrality. We need only think of how Catherine Deneuve in Un Flic, dressed as a nurse, enters a hospital and, with a cool efficiency tempered by only the most vestigial facial evidence of fear or regret, murders a patient. There is something almost pure about it. Melville knows, as does Louis Malle, how the mechanics of cinema can lead us to identify with the ‘wrong’ party. The difference is that for Malle this identification – with the brutish Nazi collaborator in Lacombe Lucien, to take an outstanding example – is what most interests him, whereas Melville shrugs it off. His characters, except in Leon Morin, inhabit a pre-moral universe.
* * * * *
When I was a film editor, I had a quote from Melville tacked to the wall of my cutting room: I like the futility of effort. The uphill path to failure is a very human thing. However, I was inclined to suspect that I was wilfully misreading it. Melville, surely, was saying that he liked the futility of effort as a subject rather than as a guiding aphorism; and this distinction has, in his case, a particular relevancy. In Rui Nogueira’s Melville on Melville (Secker & Warburg, 1971) there is a striking interchange:
Nogueira: In the underworld one must kill or be killed. Is that the way you see the world today?
Melville: Oh no, you’re on the wrong track again. You mustn’t try to interweave what I do in my films with what I am in my life.
Throughout the interview, he is at pains to disavow the sort of connections we normally make between the standpoint of a film – if not necessarily the life of the film-maker – and the world we struggle to live in. Hence, What I do is false... (One does wonder whether he would have applied this equally to Leon Morin, prêtre, a film for which he is said to have prepared himself by intensive research into Catholic teachings. Being Jewish, he would presumably have brought a measure of detachment to this. But detachment is not falsity.)
* * * * *
Broadly speaking, Melville’s output can be divided between crime films and war films. (Exceptions are Leon Morin – where the theme of the occupation is present but not predominant – and his early collaboration with Cocteau, Les Enfants terribles.) And he has attracted much censure for appearing not to distinguish between the two. This seems to me a little unfair. The question may be clarified by a comparison between Le Deuxième souffle (1966) and L’Armée des ombres (1969). Indeed, such comparison seems invited, one might even say insisted upon.
Le Deuxième souffle is arguably the least contemplative of Melville’s productions. Camera movement is restless and relentless, as if trying either to propel the action or to keep up with it. In this manner it takes on an aura of realism which makes its violence particularly shocking. And there is a great deal of violence – as much as might be expected in a war story. Yet at the same time it is strangely weightless. People shoot each other as if it were no more than a nervous tic. If I say that this film invites comparison with L’Armée des ombres, it is partly because of specific parallels. Imagine the two side by side, and these flicker between them like discharges of static electricity. In the latter, we have Simone Signoret trying on a series of disguises; in the former, we see Lino Ventura apparently trying to grey his hair with a toothbrush. Both films show someone being interrogated while strapped to a chair, in one case by the police and in the other by the Gestapo; and in both a man’s death is symbolised by his hat falling off. In both films Ventura takes refuge in a deserted farmhouse; and he crosses the tracks towards us at a provincial station – a shot not strictly necessary to the narrative in either... But such similarities serve also to emphasise the differences. In Le Deuxième souffle, even where the action is minimal the cutting does not slacken. In L’Armée des ombres, the pace is stately, and death has gravitas. And here, in contrast to what I have said in relation to Le Doulos, the most unblinking gaze is devoted not to intricate plans executed against the clock but to long, empty pauses in which there is nothing for the characters or the viewers to do but feel the fear build up. Also L’Armée des ombres dispenses with Melville’s usual tight plotting in favour of an episodic structure with various loose ends left hanging in the manner of a real-life chronicle. Doubtless this was transposed from the original autobiographical novel by Joseph Kessel; but to retain it in the film was to cast a subtly different light even on those sequences most similar in other respects to the staples of the crime genre.
There is an odd passage towards the end of Les Enfants terribles – a film replete with oddities – in which an interchange between the brother and sister is, uncharacteristically for early Melville, given in alternating close-ups with matching eyelines; but the close-up is in all cases of the one who is not speaking. It is a sequence composed entirely of reaction shots; and it makes me laugh even as I register the tragic import of what is being said. We may see in this an attempt to find a visual equivalent for Cocteau’s rococo prose and a recognition that his novels are rather fabulations – not fantasies, but fabulations – than stories in the usual 19th century sense: that they belong to an alternative tradition where the medium itself takes the lead in generating possibilities for a new vision or a new order. And it may be that a trace of this persists in the way many events are presented in controlled, end-stopped, somehow self-aware tableaux in L’Armée des ombres.
If we are nonetheless troubled by the idea of a director, himself a former Resistant, failing to make much distinction between films about the Resistance and films about criminals, it is because this falls foul of our preference for judging films according to criteria of motivation and morality. Both the anti-Nazi Resistance and a peace-time criminal gang are engaged upon activities threatening to the status quo. Does this mean we should see the heroes of the Resistance as criminals, or any common thief as a hero? A surprising feature of L’Armée des ombres, little commented upon, is that, other than attempts to rescue imprisoned comrades from the Gestapo, it shows no actions being taken against the Germans. The only people we see the group kill are those suspected of treachery within their own ranks; and in this it may be assimilated to that post-war literature which debated at length the ethics of such extreme situations (Prompted perhaps solely by its English title, Sartre’s play Men without Shadows – in the original, Morts sans sepulchres – comes briefly to mind). Here, too, we may detect a parallel with Le Deuxième souffle, its characters awash in a directionless sea of mutual suspicion and treachery. But I’m not sure we should conclude from this, as some have done, that Melville’s themes are honour, courage, manliness – as if we were discussing Howard Hawks or John Huston – though clearly there is no harm in focusing on these aspects if they happen to chime with our concerns. Still, anyone given to psychological speculation might care to ask whether things may not have been the contrary of what is normally supposed: by which I mean that, rather than his war films being crypto-policiers, Melville may have found in the gangster genre the only means by which he could do justice to his experiences of the Resistance without resorting to what by then would unavoidably have emerged as costume drama. Looked at that way, they take on a different complexion.
* * * * *
The quality which first attracted me to Melville’s films, at least in the sense of engaging my curiosity, was an emptiness which seemed in some unfathomable way both a physical and an ethical emptiness, as if the two were interdependent. Interior sets, in particular, appeared frequently to be dressed with only the essentials for the action which was to unfold in them. Le Deuxième souffle has a scene in which a crook visits a sparsely furnished room where he has arranged to meet members of a rival concern. He hides a revolver on top of a wardrobe and, before leaving, practises once or twice backing up against it with his hands raised as if in surrender, then grabbing the gun and shooting his enemies. The bareness of the set and the cold-blooded premeditation of the action seem all of a piece: what is there is what was essential, neither more nor less. But there is another element to this scene, one which ties in with the observations made about Le Doulos, and that is a seemingly wilful implausibility. Even as already outlined, it may leave us wondering how the protagonist could possibly have been sure that the pattern of his interactions with the other gang would place him in the right position, at the right time, to back up against that wardrobe. What happens next is still more bewildering. As soon as the others arrive, one of them sweeps his hand methodically over the high surfaces and finds the gun. The first crook returns, and negotiations begin during which he does successfully manoeuvre himself into the rehearsed position; but when someone draws a gun on him, and we expect him to reach for the top of the wardrobe, he in fact pulls his own gun from his pocket and gets his shot in first. So is this a joke at the expense of us, the audience? Or are we to infer that he knew his opponents would find the hidden weapon and therefore be lulled into assuming him unarmed? Neither explanation is entirely satisfactory.
The three tendencies to which I have so far drawn attention – penury of ambient detail, moral anaemia and unlikely behaviours – are what we would normally recognise as attributes of dreams. Nor are these the only ones. Aside from the specific parallels already discussed, many of Melville’s motifs appear in more than one film. We have noted the straightening of hats in mirrors (Alain Delon’s character in Le Samouraï does this almost compulsively). There is also the use of sustained tracks or pans under the titles, the incidence of large dogs, fugitives running through a birch wood, the shot in which someone’s head appears up a staircase from a lower level... More subtly there are the architectural spaces: most obviously the club with its bar counter, its dais for the musicians and its door to the more private rooms. It is probable that the similarity of these settings derives from Melville’s frequent use of his own small studio; but, whatever the reason, it lends to many scenes a strange feeling of familiarity, just as a locale in a dream may often make us feel we have visited it before, if only in previous dreams.
There is a precedent for such effects in French cinema. They are to be found in the early crime serials of Louis Feuillade. Here there is no attempt to disguise the re-deployment of sets and props and of furniture differently arranged. Location shooting frequently occurs in empty streets; and when it does not, the outcome is even stranger. The style of acting for the silent screen is very gestural, with bodily movements regularly taking their cue from words used in the inter-titles. When this is done against a background of people going about their normal business, we are left with a sense of two unrelated worlds co-existing – much as they do in the opening of Bob le flambeur. As for implausibilities, series such as Fantômas are full of them. As a change from describing film, I’ll take an example from one of the books by Souvestre and Allain, The Silent Executioner. Early in the story there is a scene where the detective Juve and his journalist friend Fandor are waiting in a wine bar to hear from two of Juve’s colleagues who are tailing a suspected criminal. Someone comes in whistling The Blue Danube, and Juve says this is their signal to intercept their quarry. Fandor assumes the person whistling The Blue Danube must be one of the police; but Juve explains that, no: if someone whistles a popular tune in a crowd, someone else is bound to pick it up, and this is how the signal was relayed from the men following the criminal. It is true enough that people pick up tunes from one another; but the idea of trusting to such a phenomenon for the success of a police stake-out is, it need hardly be said, wonderfully batty.
I am not of course implying that Melville was ‘influenced’ by these relatively primitive, pre-1914 serials. He does not, as does Franju in Judex, seek to mimic the visual styling of Feuillade’s work – the grey tones reminiscent of Gustave Doré, for whom the world is a spectral projection of itself. But his films can be assigned to the same category.
* * * * *
It is a commonplace to suggest that films exhibit a dream-like syntax. One wonders whether people dreamed differently before the example of film was available. Certainly I have the impression, having conducted no systematic research, that people’s accounts of their dreams in the days before cinema were more linear, more like traditional stories, than tends to be the case today; but that may simply reflect the narrative etiquettes of the time. However this may be, conscious attempts to exploit the oneiric potential of cinema have usually laid emphasis upon visual disjunction and temporal slippage. Yet somehow even the most successful of these – the Dalí/Buñuel Un Chien Andalou or Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon – seem more to portray dreams than actually to resemble them. (We may recall Freud’s remark to Dalí that he found his conscious more interesting than his unconscious.) Real dreams do not appear to be dreams until we have woken up. One of Melville’s few unsuccessful sequences – or so it seems to me – occurs in Le Cercle rouge. Yves Montand, a once skilled marksman whose talents the criminals need but is now sunk into alcoholism, is shown writhing in the grip of the DTs, assaulted by as many loathsome creatures as ever plagued St Anthony. One can imagine this working perfectly well in some other context. The trouble here is that it is a dream within a dream, and its style conflicts, in its pursuit of subjectivity, with the matter-of-factness of the dream we are already in.
Un Flic, Melville’s last film, is not generally rated among his best; all the same, it does seem to me the most purely Melvillean of his output, and it opens with the most oneiric of his locations. Two brief shots, of distant cranes and a seagull, lead to a dramatic pan with an incoming wave, and this continues across a sea-front road to reveal a seemingly endless perspective of five-storey flats, pristine, evidently new-built and showing no sign of human presence. The pan finally ends with another long perspective, down a side-road where only one or two decrepit dwellings are to be seen and from which a car containing the criminals will approach. We shall then track back with the car along the seafront road until it comes to a halt, at which point a reverse angle will discover just one lighted unit amid the endless emptiness: a street-corner bank. There are other customers in the bank when the criminals arrive to rob it. But where do they go when they leave? There is not a parked vehicle or an occupied premises to be seen.
The above movements are interspersed with white-on-black titles. The scene is also intercut with high-angle shots of a police car negotiating the heavy evening traffic of Paris. It is that of Superintendent Coleman (Alain Delon). As with the crooks, so with the cops: they are introduced first by their cars. And this is only one of many parallelisms in which the film abounds. The scene following Deneuve’s angel-white apparition as a murderous nurse finds her wearing a jet black gown (which, being the work of Yves Saint Laurent, will get a credit to itself in the end roller). When she and Delon are alone together, she draws his gun and threatens to kill him; and we are presented with one of those 180 degree cuts on a side-on two-shot reminiscent of the confessional sequence in Leon Morin – which is when we realise they are lovers. But the strangest of these parallelisms is supplied by a transvestite male prostitute, Delon’s main informer, whose hair-style, bearing and silvery furs lend her a parodic resemblance to Deneuve. There is every suggestion of a genuinely affectionate relationship here until Delon is given what he believes – wrongly, as it happens – to have been false information, at which point he reacts with a peculiarly vicious rejection. This is the only time Delon expresses overt emotion; and it is tempting to see it as offering a key to the understated – if stated at all – exchange of glances with Deneuve at the end of the film when he has shot Simon, the criminal, her other lover.
Much in this film is communicated by glances. Simon (Richard Crenna), as we would expect, has a club complete with bar, floor-show – near-nude, high-kicking, erotic as tin soldiers – and a door to a private office. At one point he, Deneuve and Delon sit side by side drinking whiskies. Not a word is spoken, and we are left to interpret their darting looks as the two men – presumably – wonder which way their shared mistress’s loyalties will finally fall. And this minimalist treatment applies not only to relationships. Narrative development is conveyed through dialogue of a spareness beside which the most taciturn of American noirs would come across as verbose. Everything is paced to the fraction of a second, including the pause after the humiliated informer leaves frame. Yet all these scenes, with their dualisms and their contrasts, fit together into a complex plot flawless as a Haydn quartet. Indeed, the pleasure afforded by Un Flic seems almost that of music.
The most extreme of the contrasts is between the economy with which the overall narrative is handled and the expansiveness of certain key sequences, notably that of the theft of a consignment of drugs from a courier in the sleeper compartment of a train. In a pacing reminiscent of Reggiani burying his gun and money in Le Doulos, we watch as Simon, having been lowered onto the roof of the moving train by helicopter and succeeded in reaching the toilet, washes his face and combs his hair – twice – to avoid attracting attention, then removes his outer garments to reveal that he is wearing pyjamas and a dressing gown. All of this happens in what we can only interpret as ‘real time’. The courier has secured his door by its chain. Simon, having carefully marked the height on the outside, produces a large magnet with which he slides the catch diagonally up and out of its groove before bursting in. Is that really possible? I am inclined to doubt it. But in any case, how was he to know that the courier would not have heard or seen the movement and would not be waiting with his gun already trained upon the door? As with the rescue of Lino Ventura’s character in L’Armée des ombres, relying as it does upon an inexplicable degree of foreknowledge on the part of his comrades, we are in Fantômas territory.
* * * * *
It sometimes occurs to me that Melville’s films are addressed to old people: to those of us who have cast aside the ephemera of motive and of character and for whom human emotions, without ceasing to be tragic, are no longer matters of urgent concern. There are two ways of reading Delon’s performance in Un Flic. One would be to say he is representing a chilly, unfeeling character; the other would be to see him as excluding such considerations. It is a question of whether he is implying ‘This is how someone behaves’ or ‘This is a way of showing how someone behaves.’ What we are doing when we watch a film is to create a notional world which floats mysteriously between the materials we are given and life as we know it. Just how far between is up to us. All the same – to confront the question I have been avoiding throughout this essay – why should dreams and falsity exercise a special appeal? Well, we know how important dreams are to the individual. Dream deprivation, even without sleep deprivation, can quickly wreck the human mind. Perhaps film, perhaps all art works, are in some broad sense the dreams of society, and what matters about them is not, or is not solely, what we think matters, which is to say their overt ethical or political direction?
Possibly. But, if that is true of all artworks, then we are again left with the problem of what is special about Melville. Is it simply that his films accept the fact? And what exactly would that mean?
There is something nagging at the back of my mind: a connection which does not at first sight make much sense: a connection between the tour de force of the robbery on the train and – a much shorter sequence – the first serious confrontation between Riva and Belmondo in Leon Morin, a debate about the existence of God in which the two characters and the camera move around the almost bare room in an elaborate choreography transcribing, as if etching upon space, the tensions incipient between them. What these scenes have in common is that, without ever lapsing into the vacuously virtuosic, the handling seems, as again with Bob at dawn in the Place Pigalle, to hover with a touch of scepticism above the reality it calls into being. I am reminded that Bob, like Delon’s character in Le Cercle rouge, is initially reluctant to be involved in the action required for the film; and I am reminded in turn of the parallel noted in passing between a crooks’ plot and the plot of a story. Perhaps the attempt to close the gap between art and reality by forging one’s life into a narrative is the most futile, though inescapable, effort of all.
Melville himself is supposed to have remarked somewhere that ‘a film is, first and foremost, a dream’. I don’t think that is universally true – at least, not in any useful sense. But what may be true is that every dream is a film – a film in which the medium, if you care to call it such, has been given its head. What Melville does is to score possibilities across our visual and hence moral world, a map indifferent to the landmarks by which we normally navigate. It is at least arguable that the ‘I’ of dreams, whose narrator seems never exactly that of day-to-day consciousness, is the true existential self in the process of making, preceding, its identity. To be able to stand aside and watch oneself approaching through a crowd and to measure the futility of one’s own efforts impartially against that of other people’s: this could be considered a step in the right direction.