Le Silence de la Mer Review
A number of French directorial greats have suffered in their homeland during their lifetimes. Film-makers as outstanding as Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol, and Henri-Georges Clouzot have endured backlashes when the French critics have decided to set upon on them. In the case of Jean-Pierre Melville, the great film-maker was once dubbed the father of the new wave for his role in encouraging the new wave film-makers through his independent example, but his former disciples chose to savage Le Samourai and the films that followed it for what they saw as an excess of style over content. The passing of time has allowed these films to realise their true value and the critical fashion has changed as Le Samourai is now celebrated as an existential thriller rather than a gangster film without a realistic setting. Perhaps some of this criticism originated in the expectations raised by how Melville made his début in cinema and the comparison with how much his cinema changed through the twenty five years he made films. It can't be missed that Le Samourai is a world away in stylistic approach from his feature début, Le Silence de la Mer, where the rural locations and lack of glamour are obvious and the intention is a very serious dramatic one. Melville's début was also focused on an exploration of nationality and what that means to the French and the Germans, and this focus was to become far narrower in Melville's later work as he concerned himself more with the allegiance of men. Where his later films existed as stylistic and genre based cinema, his début was a classical literary adaptation and a very earnest statement about the occupation.
Adapted from the novel by Andre Vercors, Le Silence de la Mer is set during the German occupation of France during World War 2. An elderly man and his niece live together in their home and are “required” to billet German soldiers. The first couple who live in their house come and go with little impact on the home-owners lives but when a third German comes to live with them, an Officer Von Ebrennac, his politeness and deliberate engagement with them is met by their silence. This silence does not deter the officer as he speaks lovingly of France's arts and his own past as a composer. His idealism about the military occupation, and how it can help both their nations, is not idle chauvinism but is based on a real appreciation of both nation's qualities and a sincere internationalism. He opines every evening when he enters their home as they seemingly ignore him, and he finishes each monologue with an unreciprocated “je vous souhaite une bonne nuit”. These monologues occur every evening and the uncle and niece find themselves warming to him but maintaining their conscientious silence. One evening he announces that he will be visiting friends in Paris, but days later when he returns from Paris he can't bring himself to speak to them and his visits to their living room cease for some time. Then one evening he comes to their living room and knocks on the door. Rather than enter anyway as he always has before, his hosts are forced to ask him in and they do so out of concern for him. He tells them that he is leaving tomorrow as he has asked to be transferred to the front and about how he has discovered that his fellow Germans have cruel plans for France and its people and culture. He bids them good night and the next morning leaves with his hosts' words ringing in his ears:It's a fine thing when a soldier disobeys criminal orders”
Melville's début is free of action or genre pre-occupations and sits as a fine literary adaptation. The core of the film is the characters' elegant interaction and particularly on the dreams that motivate the humanist Von Ebrennac. His host's characters are implied as they utter few words when the officer is speaking and we are left to imply their growing respect for his ideas and his love of their country. They only speak to him at the point when he has become disillusioned with the Nazism rife in his former friends, a national attribute he compares to pulling the limbs off insects. Von Ebrennac shows understanding of his host's desire to be loyal to their nation whilst showing that he too can see the great literature and countryside of France, and he is proud of the music of his homeland in the same way that his hosts appreciate Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. He recognises that their silence is pride and celebrates it by comparing it to the dreadful collaboration of some of their countrymen. His realisation of the true nature of the Nazi project horrifies him as he learns of Treblinka and death camps, and then sees the Fascist cruelty which his friends have embraced – they don't want to make France strong again, they want to crush it as an example to other nations.
This is smoothly and genteelly executed, and the poetic monologues of Howard Vernon as Von Ebrennac are sympathetically rendered even if they prove to be false hopes and pipe dreams, the idealised brainwashing of a former artist. The film is largely shot in the tight environs of the Uncle and Niece's home with Vernon speaking as his hosts' subtle reactions are picked up by the camera – a shaking hand, hidden jealousy, or obscured approval. With such a narrow focus, the film is happy to settle on this simple dramatic arc of an idealist's awakening to the evil around him, and this is done subtly and without propaganda or false chauvinism. Le Silence de la Mer is a subtle chamber piece which gives little hint of genre stylings and the concentration on brotherhood which become Melville's hallmarks, but it does show excellent technique and technical expertise which was to become more evident in his later films. A companion piece for similar French films about the occupation like Malle's Lacombe Lucien, Chabrol's La Ligne de Demarcation and Bresson's great A Man Escaped, Melville's début feature is a fine film in its own right
Eureka's Masters Of Cinema series is the closest thing us Brits get to the quality of Criterion's US releases. This release rolls out some fine extras and a 56 page booklet for this English friendly DVD premiere of Melville's début. The disc is dual layer which is about 70% used and the main feature does show some of its sixty years of age in the print presented here. The print shows wear and tear in lines and scratches to the print and some softness, especially in the exterior scenes.
The transfer is as detailed as the original print will allow and the image throughout is pretty sharp. Contrast is well calibrated which is essential for the dark interior scenes within the cottage and some of the fine silhouette shots such as the one above. Edges look natural and thankfully quick fixes like contrast boosting seem to have been avoided. The transfer is high definition and in original aspect ratio but this presentation may be improved upon if a a later disc attempts some restoration of the base materials. Soundwise, the mono soundtrack is good but time can't be denied in imperfections such as clicks and pops and a background hum. The audio is perfectly acceptable but sympathetic restoration may provide better results in later releases. The English subtitles are optional and easily read in terms of size and grammar.
The special features come courtesy of Rui Nogueira and Ginette Vincendeau, the respective authors of Melville on Melville and the magnificent Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris. The booklet contains part of Vincendeau's chapter on Le Silence de la Mer from her book alongside a Nogueira interview with the director from 1971. Vincendeau's piece deals with the preparation of the film and Melville's efforts to first win Vercors over ad then keep him at arms length during the shooting. The piece moves on to look at the reception of the film by critics and former resistance fighters, and particularly both groups concern at the use of a "Good German". Well written, intriguing and insightful Vincendeau's piece should make you run out and but her book if you don't own it already. Her contributions to recent DVD releases of French classics have been a highlight of all those releases and she also provides a filmed introduction on the disc itself. The introduction is interchangeable with the piece in the booklet, only adding some more information about Melville's influence on Truffaut and Godard.
Finally there is Nogueira's interview. Melville explains how he overcame the objections of Andre Vercors in adapting the film by offering to screen the film to a jury of resistance heroes to confirm it was true to the spirit of the book. Melville talks about the problems that his independence brought him in not using unionised crew or having a director's card himself, and about discovering the great Henri Decae whose début this film also was. He even claims that his style was pinched by Bresson rather than the other way around.
Melville's début is a triumph of will over the obstacles of his inexperience and the legacy of the resistance. Remarkably unshowy and sincere, the film has finally got a release on DVD, a release which does the film credit. A restored edition may improve upon the print here but this is recommended for Melville lovers everywhere.