Film

Criminal Minds: Exploring Jean-Pierre Melville’s Troubled Crooks at Film Forum

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Loneliness was the great theme of Jean-Pierre Melville’s cinema — not just the romantic loneliness of thieves and cops and lounge singers and spies, but the corrosive loneliness of sociopaths, sadists, men and women who have lost their moral compass. The French auteur, who is getting a centennial retrospective at Film Forum starting this week, was known mainly for his mesmerizing crime dramas — terse, poetic studies of alienation and betrayal, patience and procedure. But he was first and foremost a master of human psychology.

You can sense this psychological acuity in one of his earliest works, the 1950 adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants Terribles, about the bizarre mind games played by a pair of manipulative, borderline-incestuous siblings. Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) and Paul (Edouard Dermit) are a far cry from the gangsters and melancholy killers of Melville’s later films. But they exemplify the director’s fascination with extreme behavior and characters who seek to push the world away. Elisabeth regards anyone who comes into contact with the siblings as a threat to their relationship. That this desire to be alone together extends as far as murder and suicide is in keeping with the movie’s uniquely unsettling, surreal atmosphere (this is, after all, a Cocteau story), but it’s not far off from the pathological actions of later Melville protagonists.

After 1956’s elegiac heist drama Bob le Flambeur, Melville became known primarily for his tales of weary criminals and others who operate in the shadows. Two Men in Manhattan (1959), a noir homage shot partly on the streets of New York (Melville described it as “a love letter” to the city), follows journalist Moreau (played by the director himself) and an opportunistic, alcoholic photographer, Delmas (Pierre Grasset), as they search for the missing French ambassador to the United Nations. Over one night, they visit jazz singers, actresses, and dancers, each interrogation revealing something new about the errant diplomat. But Melville seems less interested in the mystery than in his characters’ solitude: They have each in their own ways shut themselves off. The city itself seems to feed this alienation: Melville’s New York is a fragmented place where every neighborhood seems disconnected and everyone lives in their own cocoon, adhering to their own rules.

When I was younger, the words “honor among thieves” often came to mind when viewing Melville’s films: These stories are filled with noble sacrifice, with stone-faced men who will die before ratting out comrades or betraying loved ones. Sometimes, the people who inspire such loyalty are just chance acquaintances. The deadly partners in 1970’s Le Cercle Rouge barely know one another; they are united by the fact that they are outlaws and each has skills the others need. Sometimes, the characters feel they serve a higher purpose: the French Resistance, in the war epic Army of Shadows (1969), or God, in the episodic and contemplative 1961 drama Léon Morin, Priest (which, immediately following the retrospective, is getting a week-long run at Film Forum in a never-before-seen director’s cut that restores thirteen minutes of new footage).

But over the years, I’ve found something more clinical at work in the films. We may romanticize these characters’ cool demeanor, their hard glances and impenetrable quiet — but the more we watch them, the more we realize that Melville himself is often horrified by them.

Nowhere is this more evident than in two Alain Delon–starring pictures that serve as intriguing mirror images of each other. In Le Samouraï (1967), Melville’s masterpiece, the actor plays a lonely assassin named Jef Costello, who lives in a nondescript room and seemingly emerges only to kill. Jef’s methodical patience verges on the absurd: He will sit in a car he’s about to steal, his face utterly immobile, and try a comically huge string of keys to see which might start the engine. Costello’s stoic melancholy — embodied by Delon’s impossibly beautiful visage — along with François de Roubaix’s plangent score, has cemented the character’s iconic status among generations of cinephiles. So it’s interesting to read interviews with the director in which he refers to Costello as a schizophrenic. (“Before writing my script, I read up on everything I could about schizophrenia — the solitude, the silences, the introversion,” Melville says in Rui Nogueira’s book Melville on Melville, excerpted in the Criterion Collection’s release of the film.)

Costello’s loneliness isn’t so much an act of purposeful, Zen asceticism as it is an inability to exist in the world. The film certainly has a romantic streak — the quiet series of glances that seem to define Costello’s interactions with beautiful pianist Valérie (Cathy Rosier) speak to an impossible sense of yearning. But it’s a relationship that can never be consummated, because Costello can’t relate to other people. The more I watch Le Samouraï, the more I notice how pale, how small Delon’s character seems to be.

His instability is even evident in the film’s reference points. When both the cops and the gangsters set out in pursuit of Costello, Melville cuts between the two groups as they strategize — a clear nod to Fritz Lang’s M, in which the police and the underworld set off in search of Peter Lorre’s pathetic child-killer. Listen, also, to the remarkable sound design (an art for which Melville too rarely has been celebrated). Wherever Costello goes, the sounds of the world — TVs, cars, different types of music — intrude on his reality like shards of sonic glass. No wonder he prefers to lie silently in his room listening to nothing but the chirping of his pet bird.

In Melville’s final film, Un Flic (1972), Delon is on the other side of the law, this time as a chief inspector who rarely breaks his cool while pursuing a group of bank robbers. He’s not quite as silent as his character in Le Samouraï, but he demonstrates a similar steely professionalism, as well as a frustrating inability to exist through anything other than his work. Perhaps the most tender moment comes right after one of the most troubling, as Delon chews out and humiliates a trans sex worker whom he had been using as an informant. As the informant leaves, Melville focuses on the tears on her face, and the music becomes briefly, uncharacteristically lyrical — a moment of compassion in an otherwise remorselessly austere work. Toward the end, Delon’s character busts in on a crook who’s about to take his own life, then very quickly closes the door again, so that the man can go ahead and shoot himself. Once the shot rings out, Delon charges back in.

Again, is this honor, or is it a kind of no-nonsense cruelty, a glimpse into the character’s genuinely twisted morality? I’m not sure Melville ever answers questions such as these. Rather, he allows his films to live with that tension — between the poetic allure of a dangerous life lived on the margins, and the troubling pathology of the outcast.

Melville

April 28–May 11, Film Forum

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