Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 11, 2017 9:03 pm 
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MELVILLE 100 @ PFA BERKELEY
1949 Le Silence de la Mer

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Conscientious objectors

Le Silence de la Mer, Melville's first feature, is based on a text written by Vercors. It's a haunting story even if this seems somewhat a false start. Vercors is the pseudonym of illustrator, writer, and resistance fighter Jean Bruller, who co-founded the publishing house Éditions de Minuit. Like Vercors, who took the name from a region he was in during the war, Melville himself fought in the Resistance and took a pseudonym, as a filmmaker. His given name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach. Vercors' text was first published clandestinely in 1941 under the Occupation (translated into English by Cyril Connolly, author of The Unquiet Grave).

The short novel recounts the silent "resistance" of an elderly man and his young niece forced to house a German officer for six months. The officer is a former composer, a knowledgeable admirer of French culture and literature, fluent in French. No matter. Vercors' point is, a German must be resisted on principle, no matter how pleasing his facade. Since he's so well-meaning, one may feel a little sorry for him, both for his relentlessly chilly treatment by the man and his niece, who meet him with "the silence of the sea," never once addressing a word to him - and for his cruel disillusionment toward the end. Half the French audience in the thick of the Occupation found a "nice" Nazi an unacceptable idea. But Vercors' conception is subtle and insidious. It's a thought-provoking work.

Readers from the start noted the text's "theatrical" quality, so staging it for a film comes naturally. Nonetheless it feels static this way, despite the "opening up" scenes. It might work better as a stage play. Melville's staging feels stiff. Jean-Marie Robain, playing the uncle, was only 36, and his fake white hair looks self-evidently stagey. Some things are better read (or heard) than seen. Vercors' text works best, for me, in the audio tape version my French prof gave me, which has a kind of lulling, haunting quality as the listener takes in the "nice" and so very cultured officer's long useless effort, in meticulously correct French, to woo his forced hosts - and then, after his trip to Paris, his disillusionment when he has realized his dream of cultural union was a fantasy. What he learns in Paris is that the Nazis plan to destroy France, not merge with her; and, unwilling to see the French civilization he has so loved wrecked by his own countrymen, he chooses to go off to "Hell," the Russian front, and to die.

Le Silence de la Mer isn't a triumphant beginning, but it's a statement, one step away from the War that had dominated everything and whose suspicions, asceticism, and gloom (as well as nighttime amusements) continued to set Melville's style. It's a reminder of the War and of Resistance and a unique piece, if a somewhat one-note one, yet in its way haunting and memorable.

Melville 100 Berkeley
Sunday, June 11 - 7 PM (106 mins) BAM/PFA

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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