I’ve been meaning to watch this film for a long time and now, with the release of Suite Française, it seems appropriate. This is the first film to be directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the major influences on the French New Wave. The ‘silence’ of the title refers to the mute ‘resistance’ of an elderly man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) in the face of the German Occupation of France in 1940 and specifically the ‘occupation’ of their house when a German officer is billeted there. The film is an adaptation of a major novel of the Resistance published by ‘Vercors’ (Jean Bruller) in 1942 and one of the first post-war films about ‘résistance‘ (which was highly mythologised at the time). Bruller was reluctant to allow an adaptation that might misrepresent his novel and the resistance itself, but Melville, himself doubly ‘signed’ as both a member of the Resistance and a Jew, persuaded him – and indeed then got the author to agree to his own home being used as the main location of the film.
The background to the production is described in detail by Ginette Vincendeau in her excellent introduction to the film on the Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD. Melville was fiercely independent, putting together a crew and a small group of actors from outside the French industry. (I’m not usually in favour of using non-unionised crews but Melville who had a very limited budget couldn’t afford to do it any other way.) He had no formal training but chose his team well. The photographer Henri Decaë had never shot a fiction feature but here found a very effective approach. Later he would become one of the principal creators of the look of the French New Wave. Nicole Stéphane and Jean-Marie Robain had not been credited before and they both went on to have film careers and to work with Melville again.
The film is highly unusual in that the central couple remain silent throughout the film. I think the uncle might utter one line, but the rest of the time he ‘speaks’ to us via voiceover narration. The niece never speaks. The narrative proceeds through the uncle’s narration and the German officer’s monologues, all addressed to the couple in beautifully enunciated French that even a cloth-ears like me could follow at times. Played by the Swiss actor Howard Vernon, the Leutnant is a music lover and a francophile. He explains that he loves German music but that he thinks France has the greatest number of literary giants. Later in the film he has a short holiday in Paris, trying to view the famous sites. However, as he mingles with his fellow officers he realises that the war is not being conducted in the way he thinks it should be. Eventually he will leave to go to the Eastern front.
I hope I haven’t spoiled the narrative. This isn’t a film about plot development and very little happens in an obvious way. I should say that there are subtle presentations of the impact of the Occupation revealed by posters on the wall. Otherwise the film works through the metaphor of the ‘occupation’ of the house. The Leutnant is an interesting figure, both disturbing and seemingly benign at the same time. Melville works with a low-key lighting style and elements of a film noir mise en scène to create a disturbed domestic setting and the first shot of the Leutnant’s arrival is very dramatic with a low angle shot of his face illuminated from below by the key light and framed in the doorway against the dark night sky. Howard Vernon has an unusual face and I wasn’t surprised to learn that later he was cast as the heavy or in roles in horror films. The camerawork generally is ‘disturbing’ with several close-ups and framings from low and high angles. One particular shot is repeated in which the Leutnant stands in the room (he’s quite tall) looking down on the couple who ignore him. We see Nicole Stéphane from above, behind or over the shoulder, baring her beautiful white neck, almost as inviting an attack. At other times, out of his frightening Wehrmacht uniform, ‘Werner’ talks about art and civilisation and incidents from his youth – each of which show him to be sensitive.
The presentation of the ‘occupier’ is such that we see the presentation of the Occupation as almost seductive, like a ‘test’. The couple resist by refusing to engage, although at points as the narration (and the musical theme) emphasise they find themselves drawn to the Leutnant’s monologues. Mute resistance does not sound dramatic and it is difficult to make it ‘cinematic’, though as Vincendeau points out and I certainly noticed, he emphasises the silence by making the ‘ticking’ of the clock louder at times and sound is very important in creating the atmosphere of tension. I was completely engaged over 80 plus minutes.
In the first years of the occupation, silence was in fact a good strategy. In 1940 there was little co-ordinated resistance. This would come later with control from London (where Melville was at one point) and support from active resistance within France. The first step was to give nothing away, to retain identity, to observe and prepare for the future. The original novel by Vercors was an inspirational text in 1942 and Melville alludes to this in the opening and closing scenes of his film. Melville went on to make another two films in the 1960s specifically about the resistance and for a long time he was one of the few filmmakers in France to really understand how to represent the period of Occupation.
Melville’s great resistance film is L’armée des ombres (Army of the Shadows, 1969). Another more recent (and excellent) film exposing the mythology of the resistance is Jacques Audiard’s Un héros très discret (Self-Made Hero, 1996). Melville’s Léon Morin, prêtre 1961 is on my future viewing list.