The Criterion Collection finally gets around to releasing Jean-Pierre Melville’s first feature film, Le silence de la mer, on Blu-ray. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is presented in the film’s original aspect ratio of about 1.33:1 on a dual-layer disc. The transfer comes from a high-definition scan of a 35mm fine-grain.
It’s a bit of a scattershot image, which comes down to both the source materials and the transfer itself, though its mostly quite strong. Melville shot the film in a very unorthodox manner since he had to do it on the cheap (and avoid the labour unions): he used the remaining short ends of previously used film stock to make the film, and because of this he didn’t really have a say on the type of film used and couldn’t really use the same type throughout. Because of this we get a varying level of quality between shots and some odd little effects. Some shots can be highly detailed, others can be a little grainier and a bit fuzzier, and then there’s at least one instance where frame rates change entirely: at around the 28-minute mark, when the niece is walking down the road and comes across von Ebrennac, the footage of von Ebrennac was obviously shot at a different speed as his footage comes off very choppy, almost like it was slowed down a bit. It’s also a lower quality film, almost looking like a home movie. This appears to be inherent in how it was shot and again comes down to how Melville was able to make the film: getting whatever scraps of film he could. Melville also used archival footage of Germans in Paris during the occupation in the film to aid in recreating, well, German occupied Paris, and the quality of this footage is also weak.
So past the stuff that just couldn’t be helped the restoration work is mostly nice. There is still some damage present and you get to this early on, with some specs of debris and some scratches popping up, along with frame jumps happening fairly often throughout as well, with all of this getting a bit heavier closer to the end. The previously mentioned archival footage also features a fairly heavy amount of damage, though this isn’t too surprising (if it wasn’t for the fact the quality of the film deteriorates so noticeably this footage would seamlessly blend in with the rest of Melville’s film thanks to how he edited it all in).
The transfer itself is fine, though a lot of it is limited by source. At its very best it delivers a high level of detail, rendering fine patterns beautifully. Most long shots also look good but there are a few that seem a bit fuzzy, more than likely because of the film stock used. Grain looks okay but it appears some grain management was applied. It’s not overly obstructive but a few close-ups look to be a bit on the smooth side. Otherwise there wasn’t anything too distracting.
So ultimately it’s uneven. Mostly good, but held back by how it was shot and some slight management of the image. 7/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
We get a nicely put together special edition of the film, starting with the nice surprise of Melville’s first film, and his only short, 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown. The 18-minute feature is extraordinarily different from Melville’s later work, in style and tone at least, more observant in nature as it follows around the clowns Beby and Maïss. I don’t think it’s a documentary in the usual sense as it feels its narrative (which is really just following around the protagonists and watching their day, just as the title says) is planned, and feels more like Melville finding a visual language and style, but it’s an interesting enough experiment, though probably of more interest to Melville’s fans. It’s actually an impressive effort for what is supposedly his first go at filmmaking, seeming very assured, and the jump from this to Le silence de la mer is an impressive leap.
Following that feature is the 76-minute, 2008 documentary Code Name: Melville. It’s touted more as a documentary about Melville’s life during the war while he was in the army and then in the resistance, though this isn’t entirely the case. It does go over this aspect of his life, and how it led to him adopting the last name of Melville (his real last name was Gaumbach) after his favourite writer, Herman Melville. It also goes over some of the more tragic events (like the murder of his brother, which was apparently in the name of the resistance) and how these experiences influenced his work. Most of the documentary, though, looks at his work and how it has influenced later filmmakers, getting interviews with a few like Johnnie To, Masahiro Kobayashi, Volker Schlöndorff (who did work with the director), and then throwing in interviews with other peers and scholars. This aspect is interesting and there are some great anecdotes (Schlöndorff talks about his surprise upon hearing Quentin Tarantino profess his love of Melville, Le doulos in particular, and there’s a story about Melville giving a producer a beating after he discovered said producer was probably ripping off the film crew during the shooting of Le deuxiemme souffle). I was somewhat disappointed that it didn’t focus entirely on his resistance days but it was still an informative and engaging documentary.
Melville Steps Out of the Shadows is a 42-minute, 2010 making-of documentary, including interviews with Schlöndorff, historian Denitza Bantcheva, writer Rui Nogueria, Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, filmmaker Philippe Labro, and actress Nicole Stéphane. The making-of simply recounts the film’s production, from Melville’s attempt (and initial failing) of getting the rights to Vercors’ story, his skirting around union issues, how he was able to make up for the shoestring budget, and putting it all together. There’s also some examination of the style he employed to the film (more American in some ways and influenced a lot by Citizen Kane, seen clearly in some of those low angle shots) and some of the underlying themes of the story and film, particularly how the “silence” of the two characters represented a sort of acceptance (which scholar Ginette Vincendeau expands on in another feature on the disc), and the seduction going on between the officer and the niece. There’s also a little about the differences between the original story and the film, particularly a key difference at the end. Though a lot of this material is actually covered in the included booklet it’s a fairly thorough making-of, even if it’s mostly talking-heads.
Criterion next provides one exclusive feature, a new interview with film scholar Ginette Vincendeau. She talks about the meaning of the “silence” in the film, and how it was a representation on the feelings of what was probably the majority of the French during the occupation. But she also looks at the film in the context of his other resistance related films, Army of Shadows and Leon Morrin, Priest, while also looking at the film’s style and how it would come to serve his later gangster films. She even expands on the story found throughout the features about how Melville was able to get the permission of Vercors (Jean Bruller) to release the film. It’s short at only 18-minutes but nicely rounds out the features on the disc.
Criterion then includes a short, less than 2-minute interview with Melville from a 1959 episode of Cinépanorma where Melville simply recalls showing the finished film to Vercors and getting his approval (more or less). The included booklet features an essay by scholar Geoffrey O’Brien on the film, followed by the reprinting of a 1970 interview with Melville, who talks about how he was able to get away with making the film, what drew him to the material, and how bystanders reacted to see his German officer wandering around the streets of Paris (I’m sure it’s no spoiler they didn’t react well). Interestingly, in his essay O’Brien points out that Melville added in the reference to Treblinka and the notice of executions into his films, things not in the story since its unlikely Vercors would have known about any of these things yet when he wrote it.
Overall it’s a nicely stacked edition, even if the available scholarly material is slim. But the two documentaries and Melville’s first and only short film make for excellent material to go through. 8/10