Acts of Faith

Jansen is pursued by his demons; Vogel by an Interpol cop; Corey by the mob. The existential doom is so thick you could spread it on a baguette. As deliberate as it is, Le Cercle Rouge does not lack for suspense. The elegantly functional script pivots on a neat series of reversals and chance intersections. Despite the presence of Euro stars Delon and Montand, the tone is less preening than businesslike—stately rituals performed by a cast of solitary men in trench coats. (Melville's notion of a gallant woman is the nightclub cigarette girl who silently presents Corey with a single rose, as the noose that is Le Cercle Rouge begins to tighten.)

The Melville world is so specific to the movies that it verges on abstraction, although his streamlined fatalism is enlivened by odd bits of business. The bloodhounds pursuing Vogel through the woods pass a sign reading, "Niepce invented photography in this village, 1822." Jansen suffers excruciatingly literal DTs in a hovel with striped wallpaper too hideous to hallucinate. The underworld dive run by dour, spaniel-eyed Santi (Paul Crauchet) features a floor show that might be the prototype for a Robert Palmer video—12 chorines in matching hooker wigs impassively maneuvering around a tiny stage.

No less than the Dardennes, albeit to different effect, Melville is attuned to the perfectly studied gesture. Early in the movie—and very early in the morning—taciturn Corey comes calling on the former associate for whom he took the rap. Ignoring the crime boss's fawning promises of assistance, the implacable ex-con has him open up the wall safe, helping himself to money and a gun, then leaving as his marker a worn photograph of the very woman we've just seen naked in the boss's bed. Without a backward glance, this epitome of cool leaves to play a solitary game of pool in an empty billiard parlor and await the inevitable appearance of the boss's minions.

Returning good for evil: Gourmet and Marinne in The Son
photo: New Yorker Films
Returning good for evil: Gourmet and Marinne in The Son


The Son
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
New Yorker
Opens January 10,
at Lincoln Plaza and the Quad

Le Cercle Rouge
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
January 10 through 23, at Film Forum

Written and directed by Fred Kelemen
January 9 and 11, at Anthology Film Archives

Elsewhere in Europe: The long, devotedly miserablist movies of Fred Kelemen are as steeped in dreariness as those of Bela Tarr, only without the voluptuous beauty of Tarr's mise-en-scène. Such sensuality is a bourgeois distraction. Kelemen's most recent feature, Nightfall, showing as part of his Anthology retro (January 9 through 12), programmatically disrupts its own bleakly underlit look with the insertion of raw video close-ups.

A largely plotless, fado-scored journey through the gloomy cobblestone streets, zombie bars, and fetid basements of a sordid harbor town populated by German-speaking sots and Portuguese guest workers, Nightfall is Kelemen's most polished despair-fest. An unhappy young couple, Leni and Anton, quarrel and split separately into the rat's ass of the evening. Everyone is looking for love, but no one finds any—although Leni does pick up a trick. With perfect bad timing, Anton wanders by the parked car where she is engaged, and in a frenzy of depression, carves her name on his knuckles. A sympathetic hooker bandages his hand and even gets him to dance before she lets her wig slip and passes out on the bar. Then it's on through an after-hours club of sodden depravity to the bleary dawn.

Kelemen's mode is abject minimalism. There's little dialogue, though ample background clamor. Grimly clutching the screen, his long takes give events the sense of real time. Even when verging on self-parody, Nightfall is rigorously committed to its particular vision. Kelemen is surely the least compromising German director of his generation.

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