Sight and Sound has already remarked on how Jean-Pierre Melville was a movie-maker who stood for the French love of American styles and attitudes. "When will we see such a mood again?" they wonder. Pretty soon, I daresay. For French film has a way of proving itself correct, and the habit of overlooking American arrogance - as when Edison said he had really invented something we owe to the Lumiere brothers. While we're waiting, the NFT has a season of Melville pictures for anyone left out of his loop. Try them, please, for Melville is a minor master (at least). But don't be surprised if the films seem very French.
Melville was a French resistance fighter who adored Yankee culture - guys like him pestered GIs for copies of Dashiell Hammett novels banned by the Gestapo - and Melville quickly dropped his own surname, Grumbach, for that of the author of Moby Dick. And he began his career as a film director claiming that John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle was the greatest movie ever made. It's not - Melville beat it two or three times himself. But he had his own studio, he worked as a loner, and he wore cowboy hats in Paris. The New Wave kids loved his romantic attitude. And even now, he's known for gangster pictures - Le Doulos, La Deuxième Souffle, Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samouraï. These are French dreams of America - full of men in trench coats, unreliable women, poker-faced double-crosses and unkind tricks of fate. It was very "Melville" in The Asphalt Jungle that an ageing master criminal gets caught because he takes too long watching a pretty girl dance. Mastery goes only so far, then frailty steps in.
But a complete season like the NFT's offers a man of wider range. Le Silence de la Mer (1947) is a love affair between a German occupying officer and a French woman. The setting is rural, the style simple but natural - and there are obvious influences on Bresson and Alain Resnais, as well as an example to Godard in which personal politics and the larger kind are inextricable.
Two years later, Melville directed the Jean Cocteau novel, Les Enfants Terribles, the best film bearing Cocteau's name, and a lyrical but claustrophobic account of the inescapable ties between a brother and a sister. So, by 1950, Melville was a ground-breaker, as good and as brave as Bresson.
Perhaps he faltered. Perhaps he fell back on genre when fresh material was harder to find. It wasn't apparent straightaway: Bob le Flambeur is a lovely tale of petty crime and mixed motives, all shot on location, with a verve that inspired the New Wave. Without effort, it is so many times better than Neil Jordan's laboured remake, The Good Thief.
But increasingly, noir took over. It's a fallacy to see that as "American". The French had their noir movies years before they used the term to describe American pictures. And then it took years more for Americans to grasp its meaning.
Of the later Melville pictures, Le Samouraï is the classic, with Alain Delon playing a taciturn lone-wolf named Jef Costello (a surname straight from the New York underworld). But Delon stays helplessly French - so beautiful, so mannered, so existentialist as to be close to parody. No American noir could be so modish or poetic, without becoming gay; but no French noir worth the name ever strays from the brink of allegory.
Melville's view of Americana was Parisian. It did not travel. When he actually went to the US, to make Deux Hommes à Manhattan, the result was full of innocence. For where America responds with energy and hysteria, the French see no alternative to fatalism. I suppose, in its way, that is nutshell wisdom on Iraq and our present dismay: the French know America is an errant child (and all will be forgiven). The lessons are clear: take French noir seriously (just as one should English noir), whether looking at Carné's Quai des Brumes, Yves Allégret's Une Si Jolie Petite Plage (a forgotten masterpiece) or many of Melville's pictures. And trust the dreamer, the man who imagines a faraway shore and its glorious idioms. He will get it wrong in many ways - and right in all that lasts. That describes the best of French cinema - if you take the films of Renoir, Vigo, Bresson, Rivette, Melville, and others, to be sure, all the patterns of mystery and ordinariness are outside the window. It's just that in photographing them, the one can switch places with the other.
In France, you see, they have always known film was an art. The proof of that is in their film-makers having no other reason for working - no money, no fame, no house in the hills. They're content to know that one day they'll be caught as they linger too long over some sexy sight.
The Melville season: NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), to 31 July
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