Le Silence de la mer Review
To those who only know of Jean-Pierre Melville through his crime dramas like Le samouraï and Le cercle rouge, his debut feature Le Silence de la mer should be something of a revelation. It is lean, restrained and poetic in ways which his gangster films are perhaps not. The striking visuals supplied by cinematographer Henri Decae become absorbed rather perfectly in the troubling yet elegant dichotomy of the film as a whole. Complexities abound in the story of a German officer who peacefully invades the French home of an older man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane), living there as the two hosts utter not a word to their uninvited guest. The German (played by Howard Vernon) is presented as cultured, outwardly passive and friendly, and unafraid of sharing his optimistic thoughts on what a merging of the two countries could mean in a series of monologues to his French hosts.
Narration is offered by Robain, providing insight into his character's stubborn but ultimately mixed feelings about having an enemy living under his roof. The good-natured lieutenant's admiration of France and its people engender no reaction from the man or his niece. Privately, the man begins to question himself, eventually declaring his behavior absurd. There's a strong whiff of humanism present at times here, far more so than in Melville's other films. In so many superficial ways, Le Silence de la mer differs from the oft-perceived clinical and cold nature for which Melville became known. Whether that label is entirely deserved, and one could argue that it can lead to an overly simplistic reading of the director, there's little doubt that Le Silence offers emotions, however restrained, and ideas that don't fit so neatly within the perception that has usually followed Jean-Pierre Melville. In short, Le Silence de la mer shows a Melville many may not have known existed.
Melville, of course, was heavily involved in the French resistance. The exact extent of his involvement is not quite known, but the loud whispers combined with his military records paint a dedicated and daring figure of the movement. We do know that he fought hard to bring Le Silence de la mer to the screen, promising its author Vercors (the pen name of Jean Bruller) the power to quash the film's release and destroy it entirely if he and a select jury of former Resistance members disapproved. The film's production, which included shooting at Vercors' own house as the author closely looked on, extended from 1947 into the next year and eventually resulted in a 1949 release full of expectations and interest as to what this first-time feature director would make of such a well-known and important story.
Time has been especially kind to the film. It now resembles a masterpiece and, furthermore, a defiant cry in the direction of peace and the senselessness of military conflict. Is its central depiction of a German officer who values the artistic contributions of both his country and the one it currently occupies somewhat naive? Yes, perhaps. But the fate that follows the soldier is bereft of hope. He sees the potential destruction and ruination of France and he seems reluctantly ready to contribute to it. The humanistic appeal built up over the course of the film suffers a deflation in the officer's ultimate insistence on remaining true to his country rather than his ideals. The notion of what the lieutenant says, even without any response, is instructive and often encouraging to the point of being romantic. Yet there's an arrogance inherent to many of his shared thoughts. The notion of Germany's superiority in music, for example, is veiled in a sort of patriotism that nonetheless prefigures the arrogantly sheeplike behavior to which he will succumb.
As impressive as Melville presents what are essentially one-sided exercises without the give-and-take of conversation, the apparent contribution or acquiescence of Henri Decae masks any potential deficiencies in this approach remarkably well. From the ghostly introduction of the German lieutenant, surrounded by the black of night and with his face unnaturally illuminated like a specter, to the insistence on framing Stéphane in profile until finally utilizing a devastating, straight-on and almost extreme close-up, Decae's noir-inspired photography is beyond enchanting. Adventures in nature, including snowy roads and flowery trees, serve as a welcome escape from the main room of the house. It's the visuals which create the cinematic daring necessary to overcome any sense of this being simply a polemic or oddly beholden attempt to satisfy its French audience.
The themes may require a bit more background to fully appreciate. Vercors' novella had been published clandestinely by the Resistance in 1942 during Nazi occupation of France. It was partially based on some of the author's actual experiences housing a German officer. While Melville's adaptation allows for the French man and his niece to be viewed as stubbornly passive to a fault, it also presents the main German character as often sympathetic. He is not the sort of Nazi monster easily vilified or onto which a collective anger could be channeled. This added dimension allows for the film to now be seen as somewhat removed from any kind of soothing propaganda one might expect from French cinema of the time. It also allows for a stronger resonance to modern viewers, filled with complexities and open to various reactions instead of dictating a prescribed sense of what is black and what is white.
For Melville, Le Silence de la mer is an eternal triumph. It immediately validates his vision and determination. There was a confidence bordering on arrogance in using his own money and resources to shoot the film when he didn't have the rights to Vercors' book, but it must be seen as a testament to just how much Melville worshipped the medium of film. If the cinema is an altar, Melville's pictures have surely become a kind of sacred text to which we can now study and enjoy at our leisure through modern technology. I couldn't be more content to return again and again to an ever-surprising and always impressive body of work like that of Jean-Pierre Melville. The crime pictures are easily enough, but, when combined with seeming outliers like Le Silence de la mer and Léon Morin, prêtre and Army of Shadows, the effect is dizzying in the most positive way imaginable.
Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series previously gave Le Silence de la mer an excellent DVD release (given a review on this site by John White), with a generously outfitted booklet. I'm thrilled to report that MoC has upgraded its earlier edition into a new Dual Format version, with both the original DVD present as well as a new Blu-ray disc. The latter contains an added extra in the form of a documentary, in HD, on Jean-Pierre Melville and the film's production. The thick booklet has been slightly shrunk in size to accommodate the shorter case but still has the same writings inside. Best of all, the Blu-ray is region-free.
Picture quality is highly impressive, taking the already strong image from the DVD and making it even better and more filmlike. This is a marked improvement. There is no damage to speak of and the black and white contrast registers very well. The proper 1.37:1 aspect ratio is preserved here by bordering the frame with thick black bars. Grain is visible at just the right level, with high definition's ability to present a greater fluidity of motion a real treat. It's a beautiful, silvery image that deserves no hesitation.
The French mono audio, here in a lossless DTS-HD track, also receives high marks all things considered. Narration and a series of monologues do not necessarily prove to be the greatest of tests for a balanced listening but the track here acquits itself nicely enough. The dialogue emerges smoothly, at a welcome and consistent volume, and minus any distracting instances of hiss or popping. It all sounds very clean but also warm. There are optional English language subtitles which are white in color.
The extra features included by MoC deserve particular praise and serve to give a good idea of both the circumstances surrounding the film's production and how Melville approached it. There's "Melville Out of the Shadows" (42:14), billed as a "new French-made documentary about Melville's film" from 2010 and only found on the Blu-ray. In the piece, interviewees include Nicole Stéphane, Volker Schlondorff and Rui Nogueira. There's a heavy emphasis on celebrating Melville here, though it doesn't necessarily come across as undeserved. Overall, it's instructive and full of admiring stories.
Also just found on the BD (and in HD) is the film's original theatrical trailer (2:39), which is easily worth a look.
A carryover from the DVD is an interview (22:54) with Ginette Vincendeau, who's become a welcome and expected voice on all things regarding Melville in this era of home cinema. It's an insightful discussion of Melville and the film. She's well-focused and on her game here.
Finally, that wonderful booklet returns. It features an extensive article written by Vincendeau that covers 25 pages of text and an interview with Melville conducted by Rui Nogueira that goes for parts of 15 pages of text. Stills and credits bolster the quite generous and satisfying insert to a total of 56 pages.
The Masters of Cinema Series managed to take one of its many exceptional DVD releases and significantly improve on it with this new Dual Format edition. A Blu-ray disc has been added with a documentary on Jean-Pierre Melville and, all total, it's enough to make this an immediate favorite in the MoC catalog.