October 14, 2011

Le cercle rouge (France 1970)

In an interview Jean-Pierre Melville gave in 1971, he predicted that all cinemas would vanish in 50 years because of television and believed that his films would probably age terribly. His only hope was that his work was important enough so that he would at least be mentioned in film encyclopedias.

Well, there are still 10 years to go but chances are his predictions won't come true. Cinema may not be flourishing and is going through some radical changes but it is still alive and well. Melville, despite still being a rather underrated director, has earned himself an important place in film history and an ever-growing fanbase. And as far as his films are concerned, they have aged beautifully. With their existential themes and Melville's rigourous focus on style rather than substance, they fit quite well in our superficial modern world.

The story of "Le Cercle Rouge" - his biggest success - is a rather familiar one and quickly told. Two ex-cons reunite for one last coup but after successfully executing the heist, are betrayed and hunted down by an obsessed cop. A classical tale of male friendships and loyalty. But what the film clearly proves that filmmaking is not about what to tell but how. And there few filmmakers that know how to better employ the means of filmmaking. First of all, he has patience and takes time to create an atmosphere. Autumnal landscapes with lots of blues, greys and browns and a Paris that is even more elegant and cool than the real city. Trenchcoats, hats and American cars. Rarely any women. In short, the world according to Jean-Pierre Melville. In addition, he orchestrates some brilliant moments that are further evidence that we are in the hands of a true master of cinema. The long, dialogue-free heist sequence doesn't have to hide from the various films Melville draw his inspirations from. But best of all - what makes the film truly great instead of just very good - are the the small, subtle details that only perfectionists like Melville pay attention to.

The actors are fine too and - with the exception of Gian Maria Volonté who Melville didn't get along with - embody the classical French bourgeoise gentleman that Melville himself was. Henri Decae's cinematogrophy is superb and the jazzy score does what good film music should do: enhance the mood rather than create it. But overall - as the initials "JPM" that appear in a key scene suggest - there is never any doubt that this is Melville's show.

I predict that it will still be watched by film conaisseurs in 50 years.

And I hope there will be some cinemas left then...


Men at work: Yves Montand, Gian Maria Volonté and Alain Delon

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