I’ve assumed in the past that Antonioni’s films, like Bergman’s, typified the idea of a cerebral but sexy European art cinema in the 1960s. My feelings about Antonioni were much like my feelings about Bergman. I admired the performances of the actors, the mise en scène and cinematography, each of which I recognise as influenced by the directors but also by their collaborators. My problems tended to be with what they perceived as the purpose of their films. I found both directors more interesting when they steered closer to genre forms and less when they appeared enigmatic. Of course, they could be enigmatic and offer some form of social commentary or insight into human emotions and social/political discourse without focusing on genre, but I suppose I think there is some form of discipline that genre provokes. I’ve since seen Bergman’s early films and adjusted my position slightly. L’eclisse is the third film in what some critics see as a trilogy by Antonioni, following L’avventura (1960) and La notte (1961). I don’t think I’ve seen all of L’avventura and although I did see La notte in the early 1970s, I can remember little of it apart from the casting of Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, two of my favourite actors from the 1960s onwards. MUBI earlier offered me The Lady Without Camellias(La signora senza camelie, Italy 1953) which I wrote about at some length including an exploration of Antonioni’s early career. I rather liked that film so I decided to give L’eclisse a go. It’s on MUBI in UK for the next three weeks.
I do find watching films on streaming difficult as I’m too easily distracted by what else is happening in our ‘locked down’ house. On this occasion, however, I found that watching the film in four parts actually paid off. There is little narrative ‘drive’ but a great deal happening with the performances, the mise en scène and the camerawork – and occasionally the music. It’s a long film (125 minutes) and watching it in roughly 30 minute bursts helped me focus. The setting is Rome, mainly two important specific Roman locations – a new housing development for the wealthy named EUR and the borsa or stock exchange. EUR has an informative page on Wikipedia which explains that it was the district to the South-West of Rome designed to be the site of Mussolini’s planned World’s Fair of 1942 that would have celebrated 20 years of Fascist culture. In the event, the area under state and local authority control was eventually completed in time for the Rome Olympics of 1960 and has subsequently become a business, sporting and government office district as well as an architectural attraction in which competing classical and modernist styles present a kind of dialogue. The central character Vittoria (Monica Vitti) is a young translator with an apartment in an EUR block and at the beginning of the narrative she is in the process of breaking up her relationship with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) who also lives in the spacious EUR district. The break-up is a protracted scene in the early morning. Later Vittoria will visit the borsa to see her mother, an investor. Vittoria also meets Piero (Alain Delon), a young stockbroker (a ‘whizz kid’ as my friend the money dealer might describe him) who has her mother as a client. The rest of the narrative deals with the question of whether Vittoria and Piero can get together – and stay together – for any length of time.
L’eclisse is famous as an example of the difficulty of communication in ‘modern’ bourgeois society. That’s ‘modern’ for 1961 when the film was made. I was 13 when the film was first released and at that age not really aware of what ‘modernity’ meant. But I was aware of the world and what struck me most in the opening sequence in which Vittoria and Riccardo don’t communicate about their split is something I obviously dredged from memory. I was entranced by Monica Vitti and in particular her clothes. A shift dress with a boat neckline, bare legs and open-toed slingback shoes with a low slim heel – why do I know these terms? (I’m almost oblivious to fashion now.) I must be remembering the girls I knew a few years later in 1963-4 when such styles were percolating through to the north of England. But it’s not so much the dress but the way that Ms Vitti moves within it. That was the point of the shift rather than the ‘sheath’ dress, I think. It allowed a woman to walk elegantly and fluidly with her hips swaying within the dress. I don’t find Ms Vitti ‘beautiful’ but her face is attractive and interesting and she exudes erotic power in this film even though there is little physical in her relationships except when Delon later kisses her neck. Francisco Rabal is a powerful Spanish actor cast in a role which constrains him here and the filming captures that frustration.
The contrast between the open spaces of EUR and the crowded stock exchange is perfectly captured by cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo. At this time he was working for Fellini and Rosi as well as Antonioni but he died in 1966 aged only 45 when Italian cinema lost a very talented filmmaker. There are so many scenes in the film that I could happily watch again and again partly for the mise en scène and what seems to be both a commentary on what’s happening between Vittoria and Piero and a more general commentary on a moment in Italian society, partly for the fluid camerawork and partly for the performances. Just one example – when Piero’s attempt to kiss Vittoria passionately ends with her dress ripping at the shoulder (the same shoulder her mother is touching in the shot above), Vittoria heads off into the other rooms in Piero’s parents’ home. She goes into what was presumably Piero’s room as a boy and finds his novelty striptease pen. She goes into his parents’ room and opens the window to look out as two small portraits of grandparents(?) seem to watch her. She looks down to the street below and sees two nuns, tiny figures coming down the street. The camera switches to exterior shots of buildings from different angles and then a reverse long shot to capture Vittoria looking out of the window. back inside the room, Vittoria looks out and down to see two men in an outdoor restaurant, a soldier on a street corner and then varuious people coming out of a building that might be a civic building – perhaps they have been registering a birth or a marriage or a death? Vittoria is an observer of ‘ordinary life’ in Rome.
Will Vittoria and Piero ever consummate their affair? At one point she tells him she loves him not all or far too much. It sounds like a line from a song (and I haven’t really thought about the music in the film yet) but it might be perceptive on her part. Alain Delon is very beautiful, arguably more beautiful than Monica Vitti, but he is younger than her and in this film more adolescent. 1961-2 saw him at an early peak in his career at only 26. After his first major hit as the Tom Ripley character in René Clair’s Plein soleil (Purple Noon) in 1960 he’d worked for Visconti on Rocco and his Brothers (1961) and would do so again in 1963 as Tancredi in The Leopard. Although he had some Italian heritage and presumably spoke some Italian he seems to have been dubbed in this film (which I think was the norm for many actors in Italian cinema). Piero here seems to represent the materialistic young upper class man in Rome and in a way I think he is just a toy for Vittoria but perhaps that’s just me? There are so many aspects to this film. I haven’t even mentioned the racist woman who is a settler in Kenya and Vittoria’s use of blackface. Is she being satirical? The brief sequence featuring a plane trip to Verona seems to mark this period of Roman filmmaking, reminding me of Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960). There are many commentaries on the film and it has received the full Criterion treatment including an essay by John Rosenbaum.
The film famously ends with a seven minute sequence in which Vittoria and Piero don’t feature. Baffled distributors in the US are said to have cut this sequence because they couldn’t see what it adds. It’s almost like a self-contained poetic documentary. It shows scenes of EUR and how ‘ordinary people’ interact with the environment, ending with the street lighting that illuminates the corner where Vittoria and Piero meet. Many of the shots feature characters we have seen before or objects that have featured like the nurse and her charge and the sprinkler. The ‘new’ element is a distinct sense of disturbance and foreboding (especially during this coronavirus lockdown). The disturbance is achieved partly by the camera slowly tracking, partly by the soundtrack of musical notes, chords and ‘runs’ and sound effects and partly by the reminder (via a newspaper held by a bus passenger) that this is the time of ‘The Arms Race’ and Khrushchev engaged in a ‘game’ with the Pentagon. The Cuban Missile Crisis was 6 months away when the film premièred in Milan . In addition there are still frames, large close-ups of trees, and pavements and ‘natural’ sounds (wind, water). There is a possible joke – is that Vittoria, oh, no it’s not. I find this sequence fascinating and it is almost like an avant-garde short – but meticulously shot and edited with the resources avant-garde filmmakers can only dream about. It’s a fitting end to a film I began with some trepidation but found in the end that I enjoyed it a great deal.
MUBI UK has streamed some of the films of Jean-Pierre Melville over the last couple of months. They have tended to be the better-known titles but at least it has given the opportunity for new younger fans to see what all the fuss is about. Le cercle rouge still has 3 days left I think and, if you miss it, you will still have the chance to catch Un flic (1972) which as around 10 days to go.
Melville died in 1973 so these were his last two films. His later films suffered in UK distribution by being cut and sometimes dubbed for release in circuit cinemas and it wasn’t until a successful re-release of Le samouraï in 1993 that Melville began to get proper treatment in the UK. Like the other two titles mentioned here, Le cercle rouge is a polar and a film imbued with Melville’s unique combination of American gangster tropes, French policiers and East Asian philosophies, the latter contributing to a code of sorts among criminals and some police officers.
Le cercle rouge refers here to a Buddhist reading (possibly written by Melville himself) which appears at the beginning of the film in the credit sequence. This suggests that men who meet, albeit randomly, are destined, even if they take separate paths, to all end up within the red circle. The plot is relatively simple for a narrative that extends over 140 minutes. A prisoner handcuffed to a Police Commissaire is taken to a Marseilles station one night where they board a Paris-bound sleeper. Early the next morning the man makes his escape. That same morning a second prisoner is released from prison, having been told by a warder about how a jewel robbery could be successfully carried out in Paris. After a series of incidents this man, Corey (Alain Delon) hears about the escaped prisoner when he is stopped at a road-block in his newly acquired car. He parks at a diner near where he thinks the escapee, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) might be hiding. When he leaves the diner, Vogel is in the car. There are more incidents before the couple arrive in Paris. Meanwhile Commissaire Mattei (André Bourvil) has come to the attention of Internal Affairs and is under severe pressure to re-capture Vogel. The robbery is accomplished with the help of a former police marksman, Jansen (Yves Montand). There is one other significant character, a nightclub owner and underworld fixer, Santi, played by François Perier.
There is no real mystery about what will happen – Melville revealed his hand in the opening credits. The focus is instead on the heist – completed in just under 30 minutes in a bravura dialogue-free sequence – and on the relationships between the characters who will all end up, one way or another in the ‘red circle’. Le cercle rouge follows the rules of previous polars from Melville. Corey drives an American car and has Japanese prints in his apartment, much like his character in Le samouraï . He wears a hat (a fedora) and a trench coat with the belt tied. When Corey meets Jansen for the first time in Santi’s club, he is already seated, in his trench coat, when Jansen descends the stairs from the street. We see his feet in shiny black leather shoes, dark trousers and then a coat – a long blue-grey tweed coat – and on his head a grey fedora. We perhaps remember then that in the preceding scene Mattei also wore a grey fedora – but all the other plain-clothes police were bare-headed. Jansen is immaculate with a neat dark tie and a button-down striped shirt. Corey is without his hat at this point. His trench coat is grey and crumpled, his tie is slightly awry and his shirt collar is crumpled. As he and Jansen talk, we see the arrival of two plain-clothes police, hatless but one has a light-coloured ‘shortie’ trench coat. They’ve come to escort Santi to the police HQ. When he is summoned from a back-room, Santi emerges with his long coat and, of course, his fedora. He glances very quickly at Corey and Jansen. Everything is communicated by costume and looks in this scene. The nightclub itself which features in three separate scenes with a different dance routine in each, is another convention lovingly explored by Melville. The club features a raised square dancing platform on which a group of immaculate dancers, all beautiful women, perform.
All of this creates an almost timeless ‘dance’ of crooks and cops. The characters seem ‘out of time’ to me with their hats and trench coats, more early 60s than 1970. I am aware though that in 1970 I was more influenced by hippies than middle-aged guys in suits. But I do think that Melville creates his own universe governed by codes of honour. I’m tempted to say that the codes resemble those that Peckinpah’s Western characters display in both The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
The triumph of a Melville polar is usually based on pacing, attention to detail and performance. All are on display here. Alain Delon was one of Melville’s regulars with his good looks (slightly challenged here by his moustache?) and deadpan expressions. There is no Lino Ventura unfortunately but Gian Maria Volonte is a good replacement with his curly hair (so he does match the times tonsorially). What a year it was for him. In 1970 he was also the lead in Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Italy) and Godard-Gorin’s Le vent d’est (Italy-France-W. Germany), the one as a fascistic Italian police chief (with the neat, oiled hair), the other as a Latin American bandit type in the Dziga-Vertov’s group’s best-known ‘political’ film. Yves Montand, fresh from his two successful leading roles in the Costa-Gavras political thrillers Z and L’aveu seems to me to have been perfect casting. The surprise for me this time round was Bourvil. I last watched the film about 15 years ago and I remembered thinking that the almost imperceptible comic air about the Commissaire was a brilliant touch – Melville nearly always seemed to ‘play’ on the relationship between cop and crook. I hadn’t at that point realised that ‘Bourvil’ as the star tended to be known was the same star of the 1950s comedy films that used to be imported and shown in the UK. That was clearly a time when there might have been less titles distributed in the UK but we saw a wider range of French films.
The jewel heist is a stunning piece of work, a masterwork in constructing suspense and using the details of the security system. But what do we make of the nearly complete absence of women in the narrative? There is a brief reference to Corey’s ex-girlfriend but she has no ‘agency’ whatsoever. The dancers in Santi’s club are there seemingly as icons for a certain sense of style in much the same way as the fedoras and trench coats. This is a film about masculine codes of honour. The characters could be samourai or Western gunfighters. It may just be about style but there is romance (in its ‘knightly’ medieval meaning) as well. And there is always Alain Delon for the female gaze.
The original French trailer:
Jean-Pierre Melville was one of the most distinctive filmmakers of his generation and a major influence on those who followed. A retrospective of much of his work was shown in New York earlier this year where Keith was able to see three films and in a BFI touring season in the UK a few months later. I couldn’t get to any of these screenings in Melville’s centenary year but I have finally managed to get hold of his last film, Un flic from 1972 (he died in 1973).
The Optimum PAL DVD released in 2007 delivers a screen image that seemed a little ‘blue’ and washed out to me. DVD Beaver’s report suggests that this is likely to be an accurate presentation and certainly the tone of the film is suited to a ‘cold’ aesthetic. Melville’s crime films – polars in France – had a chequered history in UK distribution. Researching Un flic, I discovered that it was given a BBFC ‘X’ certificate as The Cop in July 1971 after unspecified cuts. The certificate went to Gala, yet the film wasn’t released in the UK until 1974 – in a dubbed version distributed by Columbia-Warner. There is a review by Tony Rayns in the September 1974 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin. The DVD offers a print in 1.85:1 ratio but IMDb suggests the original was 1.66.1. An alternative English title Dirty Money appeared on UK dubbed cinema prints and US DVD releases at a later date. Melville’s polars appeared in the UK when ‘popular’ European films were often dubbed and released through commercial ‘chain’ cinemas. What is now considered a ‘specialised film’ (or still ‘arthouse’ by some) like Un flic, in the 1960s and 1970s appeared in Odeons and ABCs alongside spaghetti Westerns, Italian horror and Scandinavian soft porn.
Dirty Money is not a bad title for the film whereas Un flic is arguably misleading. Alain Delon (who featured as the criminal in Le samouraï (1967) and Le cercle rouge (1970) for Melville) is this time the cop. His adversary is played by the American actor Richard Crenna (dubbed into French for the accent despite being able to speak French) and Cathy, the woman who has a relationship with both men, is played by Catherine Deneuve. Delon gets top billing but I suspect that Crenna has more screen time and it often feels like he is the focus of the narrative. Simon (Crenna) runs a Parisian night club but is planning two major robberies – the first to raise money to finance the second.
The narrative structure of the film is unusual. Melville offers us not one but two long robbery sequences and between them these take up a significant amount of the film’s running time. Neither of the two sequences could be described as ‘action-packed’ but they are both very well thought out and, by including every painstaking stage in the procedure, Melville is able to make them gripping. The opening bank robbery is being set up as the credits appear on screen. It’s set on the windswept promenade of a town in La Vendée on the Atlantic coast. Not a soul is in sight (it’s December and raining heavily) but when the robbers in coats and fedoras enter the BNP building on the corner there are several customers already being served just before the bank closes. The getaway from the robbery is quite novel. The cut from the deserted beachfront into the inviting bank interior signals the ‘artificial’ nature of the mise en scène. During the robbery Melville cuts away to central Paris where Commissaire Coleman is setting out on his evening shift and he gives a voiceover from his car about the tedium of his work. Meanwhile the robbers in an American Plymouth car exchange cars for a Mercedes during a clever getaway procedure.
This artificiality is present in many of the scenes that follow. In one, Simon and Cathy leave the club in a car driving towards what looks suspiciously like a painted backdrop of a Paris street ahead. A cut then takes us into a Van Gogh street scene with the camera pulling back to reveal that the painting is in a gallery (the Louvre?) where three of the robbers are meeting. The gallery too appears to have a painted backdrop to represent an extension to the gallery space. I was amazed to realise that this Melville film made in 1971 vies with Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) as a cause celèbre of matte painting – and model work. When the second robbery occurs on a train, Simon is lowered onto the moving train from a helicopter and this is accomplished with a studio mock-up of the flying ‘chopper and models used extensively for the train and chopper shown in long shot. It is so obvious that you feel it must be deliberate and the crudity of the presentation clashes with sophistication of the script. (The sequence lasts around 20 minutes.) I’m not sure I’ll ever manage to sleep on a train again given the way that Crenna breaks into a locked apartment.
The same artificiality manifests itself differently in the performances of Delon and Deneuve in particular. Delon is almost expressionless in his scenes, a cold and deliberate law enforcer. Deneuve is in her immaculately coiffured ice maiden mode. Perhaps it is Crenna’s Hollywood background that makes him appear slightly warmer. One of the strongest elements of Melville’s polars is the relationship between the investigating lawman and the principal criminal. In Un flic the two characters are mirror images of each other – a situation compounded by their shared interest in Cathy.
The film begins with the quote above from Vidocq (1775-1857), the founder of the French national police force. The subtitles translate this as “Man has only ever inspired ambiguity and ridicule in a police officer”. So Coleman is shown as peremptory in his treatment of the routine cases brought to his attention and shows little emotion even when faced with the murder of an attractive young woman. Coleman seemingly treats everyone coldly (and this seems also true of his relationship with Cathy). The other two contacts that he makes are with a gay couple, an older man and an under-age youth who has attempted to steal a valuable sculpture, and with his own informer, a transgender character who is beautifully dressed and carefully made up. This person is treated badly by Coleman. Because Simon is a mirror image of Coleman, does this mean the flic is ambiguous about himself? Melville doesn’t give us any clues. It’s as if he wants to explore the terrain of the polar, drawing on its American cultural links, primarily in terms of its locales and mise en scène as well as its usual scenarios – the carefully planned crimes, the police procedures and the wordless communications about friendship and betrayal. Significantly, the key scene between Simon and Coleman is mainly about the eyes.
I need now to rewatch the earlier films, but for the moment I’ll be investigating other 1970s thrillers, political thrillers, as part of a new major season at HOME. Before I leave Un flic, however, I want to comment on the reviews and synopses for the film in the archives and on the web. When I found David Overby’s review in Sight & Sound Autumn 1974 I was amazed to see that he transposed the two central characters and also situates the bank raid at the beginning in the Paris suburbs! I respect Overby’s work and I know how difficult it was in the days before internet resources to check cast lists and locations, but these mistakes seem extreme. Tony Rayns in his review gets the train robbery wrong thinking the train is going to Italy via Marseilles. Even HOME’s programme notes (presumably using BFI notes) sets the bank robbery on the ‘Riviera’. There seems to be an almost pathological desire to misrepresent what is actually on the screen. I doubt this is deliberate but it must mean something – perhaps the dubbed print is the problem? In reality, Melville’s script is finely detailed. So the train heist is planned for a stretch of railway line, “the oldest electric line in France, dating back to 1963”, which is being upgraded and therefore diesel-hauled. The robbers have twenty minutes to complete their task before they run the risk of being entangled in overhead lines when the helicopter attempts to retrieve Simon from the train. Whatever one might think about the strange triangle at the centre of the film, the robberies are presented in incredible detail. I think film students could learn a great deal from Melville’s work on this film narrative. He remains for me the past master of the crime film.