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Melville, Assayas and a Box of Classics

Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966), Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville, Criterion

The immovable object: Lino Ventura © Criterion 1966.
The immovable object: Lino Ventura © Criterion 1966.

For Melville, physical courage exists to prove moral courage. Outlaw allegiance, upheld in blood and suffering, grants crooks their nobility —it renders their lives neither meaningless nor sordid. Conniving cops, with the law on their side, never pay for their lies, and are found wanting in honor by thieves and murderers. Deuxiéme embraces this contradiction directly. It’s what the story is about, never mind assassinated motorcycle cops, looted armored cars tumbling off thousand-foot cliffs or matter-of-fact bloodbaths in tiny rented rooms. That Melvilleian combination of casual, gutter beauty and meticulous order harkens to 1960’s Le Trou (Jacques Becker) and Classe tous risqué (Claude Sautet), and both are based on hard-boiled novels by former death-row inmate Jose Giovanni, who also wrote Deuxiéme. Apparently Melville’s way of dealing with the nouvelle vague that threatened to make him irrelevant was to ignore it. His old-school visual grammar, which somehow co-exists with pyrotechnic capers and shoot-outs, becomes neoclassicism, and shows all les whippersnappers where they got their transgressive moral—and subversive visual—ideas in the first place. The moral rigor Melville finds more compelling than any heist or love story manifests in his throwback composition and cutting. His opening shots pay homage to Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1957), and Deuxiéme exudes an incongruous Bressonian air of penitential suffering and saint-like patience. Stone-faced Lino Ventura awaits his fate in a series of grubby hide-outs, and is undone only when he expresses the tiniest shred of human emotion. Give him men to kill and he does not blink; fool his murdering friends into regarding him as a snitch and he goes berserk. And, for all the blood on Lino’s hands, the way the cops trick him feels like an ethical outrage. If Melville were just a hair less deliberate, the crime story would dominate. For any other director, the mind-blowing caper in the middle of the picture would be the climax—of the film and of a life’s work. Melville presents it all in a weirdly gripping monotone. Crime exists to pay the rent; the true struggle takes place inside a man’s soul. Melville’s rigorous Zen reductivism would find its true expression one year later in his masterpiece, Le Samourai. Deuxiéme remains his most sincere, least ironic noir, the one most vested in narrative. Of course it’s a classic.

The DVD extras feature a remarkably eloquent and illuminating interview with director Bernard Tavenier.

From top: Man in a sewer,
From top: Man in a sewer, "Do The Madison" and hot donkey love. © Rialto Pictures

10 Years of Rialto Pictures, Criterion

A godsend, a crucial library, an extraordinarily rich, efficient introduction to a range of cinema touchstones. The set includes (best film ever made?) The Third Man; Touchez pas au grisbi, an early, brutal, debonair French noir and a key influence on Melville, Becker, and Dassin; Rififi, Dassin’s existential, misanthropic caper-noir, featuring a history-making wordless twenty-minute heist; The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the most concise and accessible of Bunuel’s comedies of manners; Band of Outsiders, which features Godard’s sweetest set-pieces: the six-minute Louvre and Do The Madison; and Bresson’s heartbreaking Au Hasard Balthazar. Balthazar functions for Bresson as this set partially functions for a particular period: as a profound gateway to more complex films and ideas. Given that the set contains six top-20-ever-made pictures, the remaining four suffer a bit by comparison. Army of Shadows might be the only accurate drama of the French Underground made by a member of the French Underground, but Melville’s narrative is too lugubrious for me. Billy Liar’s Angry Young Men concerns leave it dated, though Tom Courtenay still commands the screen. Murderous Maids—as a 2000 release the most current film by almost 30 years – tries to merge Chabrol-style working-class-vs.-ruling-class true-life violence with red-hot lesbo action. That’s a tough combo to pull off and it succeeds intermittently. Mafioso suffers from simply being an unfunny farce.

It’s almost a joke—a legend—how difficult it was to find these films before the DVD revolution. How scratchy, miserable 16mm prints were projected on bedsheets hung in dormitory basements, and how seminal the Film Forum (Rialto partner Bruce Goldstein has programmed at the Film Forum for over 20 years) and other repertory houses were in providing the only glimpse possible of these pictures. And now here they are together, reasonably priced, a fingertip reservoir of history, influences and cross-currents, packed up smaller than a Tom Clancy novel: Cinema 101 in a box.

Maggie rules Paris © Zeitgeist Films (1996).
Maggie rules Paris © Zeitgeist Films (1996).

Irma Vep (1996), Dir. Olivier Assayas, Zeitgeist Films

It looked for a while there like Assayas was going to prove a significant, groundbreaking director. Instead he ended up making the same picture over and over, even if he always found new subject matter. Irma Vep appeared as an aberration, a backstage movie-about-a-movie, a comedy of manners and romance with more meta than most romances could bear. Twelve years later, this apparent confection is clearly Assayas’s best picture, his most heartfelt, and a genuine valentine to the nouvelle vague, to the jovial insanity of film-making and to the (at that time anyway) love of his life, Hong Kong action goddess Maggie Cheung. The most engaging meta (because it seems to be unconscious) is Assayas falling in love with his leading lady through the lens of his camera. Cheung glows with an inner light and perfect lighting as no one has glowed since Godard fell for Anna Karina. Cheung’s director is way smitten, and Assayas’s infatuation renders his pretensions more sweet than galling—most of the time. Truffaut’s alter-ego Jean-Pierre Leaud metas up a storm as a director who’s past his prime and crazy as a shit-house rat. Any laughter is undercut with unease, because Leaud does seem a total loon. And, speaking of goddesses, Bulle Ogier—Jacque Rivette’s muse and leading lady ­—here gleefully loses herself in a cameo as a meddlesome best friend. As in all of Assayas’s pictures, everyone is gorgeous, chic like mad and froggily verbose. Despite Vep’s excess of charm, watching involves a constant struggle between irritation (at its unnecessarily mannered and self-congratulatory style) and appreciation (at so many riotous self-referential performances). In the end, however, we are as powerless as Assayas before the astonishing beauty and grace of Maggie Cheung.


David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.


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