Ironically or not, since the subject of memory and perception are consistent themes in the films of Alain Resnais, his 1986 feature film Mélo has taken on a new perspective in the light of his later career, and perhaps views on the director's under-appreciated later works will also be revised since his death in 2014. Mélo came out of a period when Resnais was ostensibly moving away from the more experimental arthouse approach to cinema and starting to incorporate ideas from other artforms and genre material, and mostly from forms of popular entertainment including comic books, musicals, theatre and latterly even expressing a fondness for American TV boxset series.
At the time Mélo was made in 1986 it was enough of a surprise to see a master filmmaker like Resnais adapt what at first appears to be a piece of unexceptional popular theatre in a fairly straightforward and austere manner. Since then however we've seen Resnais work extensively with Alan Ayckbourne (Smoking/No Smoking, Private Fears in Public Places, Life of Riley), working with little domestic dramas and overlapping those with ideas and techniques borrowed from popular French comic artists. Mélo however represents very much a return back to the basics of dramatic performance, taking a seemingly unexceptional 1930’s play by Henri Bernstein, stripping the piece down to its bare bones, thoroughly rehearsing the actors before setting up and shooting the entire film within 21 days.
Mélo is short for melodrama, and the film rigorously adheres to the conventions of the genre and the theatrical roots of the piece. Opening with pictures of the cast in a theatre programme and a red curtain between acts, the film makes no pretence of realism. Maniche and Pierre Belcroix are dining with an old friend, the celebrated musician Marcel Blanc, who tells them the story of the recent breakup of a relationship. Maniche is captivated by this intense, romantic character and they begin an intense and secret affair. Maniche is tormented, needing to be with Marcel, but loving Pierre too much to hurt him when he must find out that he has been betrayed by his wife and best friend. Then Pierre falls suddenly and suspiciously ill.
Made on a tight budget, Resnais turned the restrictions imposed on the film to his advantage and actually seems to delight in the working with the artificiality of the theatrical sets and lighting, feeling no obligation to make it look realistic. Mélo is not entirely theatrical either, Resnais using the stage sets to create an environment where mood, lighting and colour can reach areas that strict naturalism can't, but using cinematic techniques to follow through and push the moods of Bernstein's melodrama past the traditional limitations of theatre and indeed cinematic expression.
Although the title seems to be knowingly self-mocking, there is nothing clever or self-deprecating about Mélo. The play is treated with affection for the source material, played with conviction and skill by the cast and expertly directed by Resnais under exceptional circumstances. The film also looks absolutely gorgeous. It is beautifully photographed and staged with great attention to the emotion and atmosphere of the piece through appropriate colour schemes and use of light and shadow. For a Resnais film, some may find it slight and unexceptional, but it has other qualities, not least of which are the fine performances of the actors.
Resnais's approach to the theatrical in Mélo was very unfashionable at the time it appeared in 1986, but its focus on character, mood, performance and the genuine human issues that underlie the story mean that it has worn much better than much of the cinéma du look of the period, and I'm sure the same will be found to be true of Resnais's other later works. The key to whether there is real human feeling to be found in Bernstein's romantic melodrama is perhaps in that seemingly ordinary opening scene in a suburban district of Paris, in that single shot take of Marcel relating the story of a love affair, in the power of music to evoke memory and deeper sentiments, and Resnais's ability to translate the sweep of all that into film is masterful.
Mélo is released on Blu-ray by Arrow Academy. The disc is Region B encoded. The transfer is presented in the original 1.66:1 ratio from a brand new 2K restoration of the film and it looks stunning. The image tends towards soft rather than clinically sharp, but that's all part of the mood and lighting of the film. The warm colour tones and deep blacks are gorgeous, the grain handled beautifully. It's pretty much a flawless transfer of a beautifully photographed film. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio mix is also clear and rounded in tone.
The extra features are identical to those that were available on the previous 2002 DVD release from MK2 (with the added benefit of English subtitles here). An audio-only interview with Resnais and an interview with producer Marin Karmitz provide a fascinating insight into the unusual circumstances under which the film was made, while Sylvette Baudrot and Jacques Saulnier give more technical detail about how those challenges were met. There are interviews with each of the principal actors talk about the unique experience of rehearsing the film like a play. One new extra is an excellent 15-minute mini-commentary from Jonathan Romney that places the film in context and provides a thorough analysis of the film. The trailer is included and there's a booklet featuring new writing on the film by Bilge Ebiri.