This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in CTEQ: Annotations on Film published in Metro, no. 199, 1999, pp. 96-97.
“For twenty-five centuries, Western knowledge has tried to look upon the world. It has failed to understand that the world is not for the beholding. It is for hearing. It is not legible, but audible.”
– Jacques Attali (1)
Closely based on Vercors’ famous novella of the German occupation of France published in 1942, Le silence de la mer (1949) was Melville’s first feature film and is widely regarded as an important precursor to the nouvelle vague and, more obviously, the director’s other films dealing with French wartime experience: Léon Morin, prêtre (1961) and L’armée des ombres (1969). It is both of-a-piece with Melville’s other work and singular. Its attention to details of gesture, mise en scène, performance and framing are consistent with much of the director’s later work but the film also has a more experimental and contradictory edge. It is a film that almost wills one to silence, forestalling attempts to write about or formalise it. This circumspection might read like a weak excuse for writer’s block, or an overly poetic and evasive response to the film’s narrative content, and yet to be true to the film one must speak of a difficulty of communication, of translation, of an inability to collapse the film into a specific conceptual or descriptive framework.
The basic form of Melville’s film is something of a poetic and spatial conceit: a soldier (Howard Vernon) of the occupying German army is billeted at the home belonging to a middle-aged French man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane). Somewhat atypically for the time, the German soldier is represented as a cultured man who openly pontificates about the strengths and weaknesses, and destined conjoining, of French and German cultures. The officer also speaks to his French hosts’ silence. Although the film moves between locations fairly freely – including one astonishing flashback to the tank-bound officer in front of Chartres Cathedral – it is the claustrophobia and limited spatial dynamics of the house’s sitting room which dominates the film (most of the interiors were shot in Vercors’ actual house).
As I have mentioned elsewhere, Melville’s cinema is essentially tonal: a particular sensibility (melancholy, poetic, stoic, unhysterical, formalised) that is founded on a pared back “purity” and unity of style, performance and narrative action. In Le silence de la mer, the relationships between the key characters remain unspoken; they lie in silence, and are only expressed through abstract gestures, the systematic use of a particular cinematic device, and, to some degree, in the retrospection of the voiceover. Familiar formal devices such as dramatic scoring, framing and optical point-of-view “encourage” us to read these events in a particular way. For example, in an early sequence the officer and niece are each out walking on a snow-covered day. At this point the film has suggested little of their possible attraction and their actions reveal almost nothing in the way of actual communication, and, yet, the sequence is shot and edited in such a way that the audience senses a tension that moves beyond the characters’ obvious discomfort in confronting one another outside the home. Through the incisive use of crosscutting, framing and expressive camera angles, Melville suggests a somewhat more conventional meeting of bodies – one that is nowhere present in the actions we see within the frame.
In its mixture of the everyday and the patently artificial one can see what might have attracted Jean Cocteau to Melville’s film (they worked together on Melville’s next project, Les enfants terribles , and Melville also appeared in Cocteau’s Orphée [also 1950]). The play of lighting, particularly on faces, and the framing of bodies and body parts is both strikingly subtle and, at moments, surprisingly expressionistic. The world of the film is necessarily regulated and controlled and yet is exhibits something less than a rigid scheme. The film does have its somewhat clumsy elements, such as the caricatured representations of other German soldiers and civilians, but these can be justified within the strikingly and productively contradictory registers that the film deploys.
The most remarkable and experimental element of this film is its use of sound. Though very much a sound film, laden with dialogue, it includes very little conversation and not much real communication between characters, other than that which churns beneath the surface. The voiceover of the uncle that lends the film a detached, almost circumstantial tone washes against the sea of words of the German officer; while the diegetic elements of the soundtrack (intense, isolated ambient sounds like the incessant ticking of a clock, the officer’s almost-monologue) compete with the non-diegetic (the over-dramatised score, the underplayed voiceover).
On first viewing the soundtrack may seem somewhat annoying, even clumsy, and yet it also breathtakingly expresses the film’s basic concerns. The discordance of the score, the isolation of ambient elements, the startling electronic pitch in one sequence, all point to a sense of harmony, communicativeness and stylistic coherence that is never achievable in the world of the film. By pitching sounds against one another, placing voices within separated dramatic spaces, the silence of one against the excessive verbiage of the other, Melville succeeds in representing a notion of “resistance” that marks each aspect of the film (and the harmony that lies “beneath” the film as a kind of underlying current or score is only achingly suggested and never really achieved). In many respects this resistance between characters is expressed ritualistically, a characteristic Melvillean element: the officer incessantly speaks to join the cultures; the niece and uncle don’t to keep them apart. There are also elements of the film’s style that are equally ritualistic or subtractive; for example, despite consistently framing the niece’s head within spare compositions she is never given a extreme close-up until the penultimate moment of the film. It is when these rituals and stylistic parameters are broken that the characters’ dilemmas are most forcefully expressed.
In essence, the drama of Le silence de la mer revolves around the contested realm of words and sounds. Despite its poeticism, it is a film about occupation, colonisation, and the control of words, music and sounds, as well as the command of space. The German officer is forcefully (though he does not “force” himself) placed with the uncle and niece’s domestic space, and he occupies it through a form of gentle coercion and subjugation, filling the air with his own expression of the French language, alongside moments of German and English; while it is only though a limited series of actions and options that the French characters can express themselves in their own voices (and then almost exclusively through silence and abstinence). It is this irreproachable silence that the German officer cannot broach, command, nor indeed even question.
The sea is both silent and endlessly churning. Sometimes words are necessary.
1. Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1985, p. 3.
Le silence de la mer (1949 France 86 mins)
Prod Co: Melville Productions Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville Scr: Jean-Pierre Melville, based on the novella by VercorsPhot: Henri Decaë Ed: Jean-Pierre Melville, Henri Decaë Sound: Carrère Mus: Edgar Bischoff
Cast: Howard Vernon, Nicole Stéphane, Jean-Marie Robain, Ami Aaröe, Denis Sadier, Georges Patrix