Jul. 30th, 2015

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[Note: This piece was first published by One Perfect Shot in 2015.]

A full decade before the writers of Cahiers du cinéma picked up movie cameras and started making features on the streets and in the cafés of Paris, a former member of the French Resistance who took the nom de guerre Jean-Pierre Melville (after American novelist Herman Melville) and decided to keep it showed how it was possible to work outside the entrenched French film industry. His proof of concept was Le Silence De La Mer, released in 1949 and based on the 1942 novel by Vercors, which had been clandestinely printed and circulated throughout occupied France. When Vercors declined to give Melville the film rights, though, the determined director went ahead and made the film anyway, arranging to show it to the author after it was completed. The gamble paid off when Vercors retroactively gave his consent and Le Silence was allowed to be distributed, making Melville’s name and reputation in the process.

Minimalist nearly to the point of abstraction, the film starts enigmatically with a secret rendezvous between two Resistance fighters, with one of the items handed off being a copy of Vercors’s book. The story itself plays out in flashback as its unnamed narrator, an old man convincingly played by thirtysomething actor Jean-Marie Robain, recalls the six months he and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) were forced to play host to a German officer in their farmhouse. This would be sufficiently distressing if the Nazi were an abusive bully, but from the moment he introduces himself, Lt. Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) is unfailingly polite, apologetic, and understanding, even as the old man and his niece give him the silent treatment. At the conclusion each of his visits to their library, where he typically finds the old man puffing away at a pipe and his niece intent on her knitting, the lieutenant always says, “I bid you good night,” fully aware he’ll never have a welcome to outstay, but respectful nonetheless.

As the days and weeks wear on, Ebrennac becomes more comfortable with his one-sided conversations, even going so far as to change into his civilian clothes to put his hosts at ease. Expounding on his love of French culture (before the war, he reveals, he was a composer), he looks forward to the day their two countries are “married” and looks meaningfully at the niece when he retells the story of Beauty and the Beast, which Jean Cocteau had put his indelible stamp on the year before cameras rolled on Le Silence. (It’s fitting, then, that Melville’s next feature was an adaptation of Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants Terribles, which also starred Stéphane.)

For a debut feature made piecemeal over the course of a year and a half –- Melville could only raise the money to shoot for a day or two at a time -– Le Silence is remarkably assured. A lot of the credit for this goes to cinematographer Henri Decaë, who went on to photograph several of Melville’s subsequent films as well as such foundational Nouvelle Vague entries as Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers, Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins, and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Utilizing stark lighting and harsh shadows –- a look Melville gleaned from the contemporary American films he got to see in London earlier in the decade –- Decaë’s work on Le Silence lends each interior scene a brooding intensity that belies the casual nature of the characters’ interactions. No matter how cultured and well-intentioned Ebrennac may be, the brutality his fellow countrymen are capable of –- a reality he comes face to face with when he travels to Paris to witness France and Germany’s “wedding” –- reveals how much he’s been blinded by his own romantic notions about the war. Earlier, he had said to his hosts, “We must conquer this silence, conquer the silence of France.” As history bore out, though, France wouldn’t remain silent for long, and thanks to the efforts of Melville, Vercors, and many others, its cultural heritage would remain in place for decades to come.

Special Features:

As is frequently the case with Criterion, its release of Le Silence De La Mer is rife with extras that do a masterful job of putting it in context. Foremost among them is Melville’s rarely seen first film, an 18-minute short from 1946 entitled 24 Hours In The Life Of A Clown, along with a brief interview with the director from 1959 in which he discusses Le Silence’s genesis. This is also covered in detail in a new interview with film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, who has contributed commentaries and interviews to Criterion’s releases of a number of Melville’s other films, and the 42-minute documentary Melville Steps Out Of The Shadows from 2010. The package’s centerpiece, however, is the feature-length documentary Code Name Melville. Made in 2008 for French television, it delves into Melville’s war record and the long shadow it cast over his subsequent career, as well as his continuing influence on the filmmakers who came after him. To quote Hong Kong action director Johnnie To, “Even unconsciously, his films stay in our heads.”


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Craig J. Clark

September 2017

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