Howard Vernon stars in Melville's wartime drama Le Silence De La Mer (1949)...
Of all the great films about WWII, there have been very few to account and atone for the Nazi's systematic destruction of paintings, artifacts and literature, and consider the impact of their wipeout on contemporary society. German Officer Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon), who is billeted to the home of an elderly gentleman (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane), is a sensitive man, well spoken and cultured, and Melville - adapting the acclaimed Resistance novel by Vercors - grants him a stage on which to voice opinions on war, occupation and literature - including a stodgy parallel between his adoration of the petite ingénue niece and Beaumont's classic fairytale Beauty And The Beast. Set in 1941, the film begins as a simple three-hander, shot in carefully composed 1.37:1 tableaus which all adopt the exact same arrangement - uncle and niece sat at directly opposing right angles and Ebrennac patrolling the living room's center. It is here that the officer celebrates France's great writers - Balzac, Descartes, Gautier - and later laments the Nazi's widespread pilfering (and in many cases burning) of their works. In a startling moment of humanity Ebrennac gazes at the shelf of thick, leather-strapped books and cries, "They will extinguish the light!" It's a compelling moral position for the film to underline, but Melville engages with it far too late - instead building his dramatic focus around the trio's enforced living arrangements.
Don't get me wrong - Melville's direction is smooth and confident, and DP Henri Decaë accentuates the darkness beautifully, drawing us deep into the shadowy world of Le Silence. Ebrennac is introduced in an almost literal sea of black, with Vernon's oily eyes and eagle-like nose barely visible through the rippling mass. It's an image of confounding terror, and one which I imagine the actor - who went on to star in dozens of sleazy z-grade horrors for Jesus Franco - placed at the top of his CV. Technically the film is a masterclass in structure and form, but an exhaustive and heavy-handed voiceover means that for the first 45 minutes Melville is hitting a dramatic dead-end. The way Ebrennac knocks before entering the room but never waits for a reply, paces the floor and then warms himself by the fire - these are all events we can perceive by sight, and yet the uncle narrates each one as it literally unfurls onscreen. Rather than suggestion, everything in the voiceover acts as a description, and soon I began to question its purpose. Melville is celebrated for allowing the audience space to interpret motivation and feeling in his films - and in the case of existential capers like Bob le Flambeur (1956), rightly so - but here everything is signposted, and every emotional beat uncomfortably dictated.
The biggest problem with Le Silence is that I was never engaged by its story or characters, and by the time Ebrennac reveals his true colours - interesting colours, too - the film just comes to an end. Right as my interest was piqued, ...FIN. Vernon has one of the most compelling faces in all of cinema, and his turn here is fantastic, but too often the actor is lumbered with dull monologues and plain-faced exposition, and in one scene, where the uncle's narration paints him as appearing "like a ghost", Melville tritely imagines his spectral shadow creeping up the wall. The actor's skeletal figure is far more effective when captured in wide shots, which allow the full crane of his body to command the frame. Ultimately, as promising as this debut is, the story of its making is far more interesting and significant. Melville didn't hold a union card when it came to filming so, using snippets of unwanted stock, he shot the picture in 27 non-consecutive days, spread over approximately 18 months. Actually, all things considered, it's a remarkable achievement that Le Silence was ever completed. Maybe for that fact, and when noting its influence on the nouvelle vague brats, it should be celebrated, flaws and all...
Le Silence De La Mer was first released by Masters Of Cinema in 2007, but this Dual Format Edition contains an all-new Blu-Ray disc with remastered image and sound, plus a 43-minute documentary entitled Melville Out Of The Shadows, featuring interviews with Denitza Bantcheva, Volker Schlondorff and Nicole Stéphane (among others). Tech specs are top-notch. The 4:3 ratio and Decaë's photography are well served in this beautiful transfer, in which the shadows are utterly captivating. The sound mix is also good, although considering that the most prominent sound in the film is the ticking of a clock, your 5.1 system won't be tested too much. Alongside the Blu-Ray exclusive documentary there's a brilliant discussion of the film by Ginette Vincendeau, who exuberantly whisks us through the film's fascinating production history. It's slightly disappointing that the best extra is a direct DVD port, but the documentary does throw up some worthwhile trivia. To round off the package there's the original theatrical trailer and a 56-page booklet, which includes an interview between Melville and Rui Nogueira. Unfortunately the booklet was not included with my screener.
Le Silence De La Mer is released on a Dual Format Edition (Blu-Ray/DVD) on January 23rd.