Jean-Pierre Melville

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Jean-Pierre Melville , actually Jean-Pierre Grumbach , (born October 20, 1917 in Paris , † August 2, 1973 there ) was a French film director and screenwriter .

Life and work

Jean-Pierre Grumbach was born in Paris to Alsatian Jews . His commercial career was interrupted by the Second World War. He was one of the soldiers rescued from Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo . In the French resistance he took the name of the writer Melville , which he then kept. After the war he tried in vain to get a job as an assistant director, which forced his way to becoming a producer.

From the time of the resistance, he later described the practices of the Resistance very vividly in Army in the Shade . His first film after the war, The Silence of the Sea (1947), was about the occupation and the relationship between the French and the Germans. Melville was extremely independent and organized his debut without outside help, especially without the support of the influential French film union, which he positioned as an outsider from the start. Accordingly, his work was criticized with disdain. His next film was The Terrible Children , a literary adaptation based on a model by Jean Cocteau . This film uses partly surreal stylistics . Melville was a pronounced filmmaker and directed his interests mainly in the US cinema before the Second World War. He named directors like William Wyler and Robert Wise as major influences . He made a "list" of around 60 important directors, the rest he rejected. He was less interested in French cinema. His later work, which was so impressive, is based on the admiration for classic American film.

Melville's films are always about topics such as friendship and trust, loneliness and betrayal. The characters he focuses on are often outsiders and isolated or misunderstood solitaires. Another literary adaptation followed before Melville first put a figure from the underworld in the spotlight in 1955 : Bob le Flambeur , the player and casual guy with criminal ambitions. Atmospherically less hypothermic than his later underworld films, he shows a Paris that, ten years after the end of the war, is populated with bon vivants and dreamers, who succeed in some things and fail in some things. His later fatalism is still limited. Bob le Flambeur is a real Melville, without his heroes completely failing. Failure becomes the main theme of his next gangster films. In Eva and the Priest with the young Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva there is no luck for the two protagonists either .

Belmondo also stars in The Devil In The White Waist, alongside Serge Reggiani and Jean Desailly . Here the story becomes bloodier and blacker. Betrayal and unclear circumstances of the main characters forge a fatal story with no chance of a happy ending. This is followed by The Millions of a Hunted One , an early road movie with Charles Vanel and again with Belmondo, here as an "unequal couple" of a special kind, a forced community on the run through the USA. Here friendship is replaced by calculation and morbid intentions. The end is disillusioning for everyone. While at the same time his film colleagues of the Nouvelle Vague are stylistically changing and changing, Melville impressively expresses his idea of ​​professionalism and classic cinema here. It is all the more revealing that he is making use of an outspoken Nouvelle Vague icon in Belmondo.

Lino Ventura and Paul Meurisse play the leading roles in Second Breath . Here Melville becomes the master of the renewed film noir . An inscrutable ambiguity of the circumstances becomes the topic. Shortly before Melville will reinvent the film gangster, you can find his apotheosis already demonstrated in this film.

Alain Delon himself inspired Melville to create the character of Jef Costello , according to Melville . Melville said he envisioned Delon's behavior in a particular situation. This is how the idea for The Ice Cold Angel came about - Costello as a chilled contract killer, a professional who understands his craft as a job and a job. He doesn't allow himself any feelings any more than the police. Nothing can disturb the control cycle of order and execution, unless betrayal and ambiguity. Suspected by the police, Costello becomes a security risk for his clients. They want to eliminate him without further ado. The police do not give up, the hunter becomes the hunted. The story is banal, the formal implementation is very big cinema. The images and what is conveyed through them seem detached from the plot, seem to become a generally valid metaphor for deep existential truths. In terms of content, more than just a new film noir or an ordinary gangster film, The Ice Cold Angel reflects fundamental aesthetic positions and a certain conception of what beauty can be in the cinema. Melville proves that pictures can do more than words.

The Delon-Melville combination proved to be fruitful, and two more works were created. Before that, however, the past catches up with Melville again in the form of an armée des ombres , an army in the shadows . That's the name of his next film. Lino Ventura , Jean-Pierre Cassel and Simone Signoret are inextricably entangled in the story. History here means World War II, occupation, resistance. The methods of the occupiers and those of the resistance fighters seem similar, but the goals are completely different. Melville paints a very authentic picture of that time and also shows the brutalities of his countrymen. Pessimism and resignation mix with desperate action to turn into hopelessness. Melville said in an interview that he dreams his characters because he cannot live all these lives himself; here the dream becomes a nightmare per se. The film was later described as a gangster film in the guise of the Resistance. Remarkable: Melville's ability to bring contemporary history back to life in a cinematic manner.

In his next work Four in the Red Circle (original title: Le cercle rouge) from 1970 we meet Delon as an unglamorous prisoner who, released early, meets an escaped convict ( Gian Maria Volontè ) on his return journey . This chosen relative becomes his friend and together with an almost broken Yves Montand as an ex-cop and drinker, they become a powerful gangster trio. The commissioner ( brilliantly cast with André Bourvil ) is close to them. The fatality of the story is remarkable: Any misfortune that can fall on the protagonists seems to have to fall too. Fates cross in a strangely inevitable way in that red circle, the color of which is drawn with blood. Even the commissioner finds himself in this strange circle of fate, even if he is the only one to get away with his life. Melville once again proves to be a flawless pessimist. In addition, the film is a study of the French crime film in that it depicts all constellations and relationships as well as the conventions of the genre as models. The absence of female figures is remarkable. In the ice-cold angel , women crystallized out as important projection surfaces for longings, here this longing seems to have ended. The break-in into a jewelry store is demonstrated by Melville in real time, probably also in order to realistically depict the less glamorous activity of the gangster profession; nevertheless you can feel respect for the professionalism of those involved. In his last film with the inappropriate German title Der Chef (Un flic) from 1972, the situation was reversed. Alain Delon is a police officer here and just as thoroughly between the fronts as Jef Costello was formerly . Relationships and friendships turn out to be extremely fragile. Professionalism is at the top again, trust is broken. So Delon shoots his friend / suspect in the end almost preventively and also prematurely. Just a professional. The last shot of the last Melville film shows a deadly sad Delon with petrified features.

Melville was an outsider in French and a singular figure in European film, also because he probably wanted it that way himself. His independence went so far that he wrote his own scripts and had his own studio for his filming. He meticulously checked all stages of the film's making, including the editing and the sound and the music. For him, film was also a craft that you had to be able to master completely. He came 15 years too early for the generation of the Nouvelle Vague, although he anticipated their production characteristics in a certain way and had a guest appearance in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless . However, he was skeptical of their carelessness in matters of form. The critics of the influential magazine Cahiers du cinéma never accepted him during his lifetime and only very late afterwards. It was accused of being too traditional and it was claimed that a Melville film was recognized in seconds. This is really an award for the ultra-professional he was and an endorsement of his inimitable sense of form. Its importance for the artistically refined European genre film is still underestimated. Melville has still not achieved the status of comparable directors in the film fair. Nevertheless, there is a tendency for some directors (e.g. Aki Kaurismäki , Quentin Tarantino ) to quote his formalisms.

Materials for the reception of Melville's work are generally few and far between, especially in German. He gave only a few interviews himself. Volume 27 of the Film series published by Hanser Verlag is a source of information on his work and, in part, on his person . In the book's foreword by its temporary assistant director Volker Schlöndorff , you can find out what it was like to film with Melville. The most profound source is the interview volume “Kino der Nacht” (comparable to the famous interview volume by Truffaut / Hitchcock) by Rui Nogueira with Melville (Alexander Verlag Berlin 2002, Ed. Robert Fischer ).

Melville died of a heart attack in Paris in 1973 at the age of 55.



  • Rui Nogueira: Le cinema selon Melville . Seghers, Paris 1973 (new edition: Éditions de l'Étoile, Paris 1996, ISBN 2-86642-176-0 )
    • German edition: Kino der Nacht. Conversations with Jean-Pierre Melville . Alexander-Verlag, Berlin 2002, ISBN 3-89581-075-4
  • Bernd Kiefer: [Article] Jean-Pierre Melville. In: Thomas Koebner (Ed.): Film directors. Biographies, descriptions of works, filmographies. 3rd, updated and expanded edition. Reclam, Stuttgart 2008 [1. Ed. 1999], ISBN 978-3-15-010662-4 , pp. 498-503 [with references].
  • Antoine de Baecque: Jean-Pierre Melville, une vie. Éditions du Seuil, Paris 2017. ISBN 978-2-02-137107-9 .

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