1941 in a small town in Nazi occupied France. Against the will of its elderly male and his adult niece residents, the Nazis commandeer a house for one of their officers, Lt. Werner von ...
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A French UN delegate has disappeared into thin air, sending reporter Moreau (Jean-Pierre Melville) and hard drinking photographer Delmas (Pierre Grasset) on an assignment to find him. Their only lead is a picture of three women.
1941 in a small town in Nazi occupied France. Against the will of its elderly male and his adult niece residents, the Nazis commandeer a house for one of their officers, Lt. Werner von Ebrennac, to live in for as long as he is in the area on Nazi business. As a figurative and literal silent protest against the Nazis and the officer, the uncle and niece do whatever is required of them while the officer is in their house, however they do not acknowledge his presence, living largely in silence whenever he is around. The officer treats the housing situation with care, like he is a guest. Although not a nightly occurrence, the officer begins an evening routine with his reluctant hosts: in his civilian clothes, he knocks on the door of the room in which they have convened for the evening, walking in shortly thereafter knowing that no acknowledgment will be made for him to enter, he visits with them for no more than five minutes before he bids them a good evening as he exits. During these ...Written by
Partly because they used natural light whenever possible, and partly because they wished to emphasize, for thematic reasons, contrasts of light and shadow, Melville and his director of photography, Henri Decaë (whose first feature film assignment this was) shot many scenes much darker than was the rule in French cinema at the time. As a result, when the film was sent to be developed, the laboratory alerted Melville to the shadowy scenes, assuming a mistake had been made. See more »
Werner von Ebrennac:
There's a lovely fairy tale that I've read, that you're read, that everyone has read. I don't know if the title is the same in your country. We call it, "Das Tier und die Schöne", "Beauty and the Beast". Poor Beauty, she is at the mercy of the Beast, powerless and imprisoned. She is subjected to his implacable, heavy presence all day long. Beauty is proud, dignified, she has become hard. But the Beast is better than he seems. He doesn't have the finest manners. He is tactless, brutal. He seems ...
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an unusual, stagey resistance film that gets better/more intriguing as it goes
Here's the set-up: an uncle and his niece (the latter Nicole Stephane, who would appear as the female lead in Melville's follow-up Les Enfants Terribles) are living in a small town in France and it's the early part of the war in 1941. A German officer is wounded and has to spend some time to heal (not serious enough for a hospital it would seem, but not strong enough to fight yet), and immediately things are tense as the French citizens refuse to say a word or even look up - their own form of silence as protest - but he doesn't mind.
Officer Werner von Ebrancc in fact will talk to them or, perhaps, in a way, to himself without any regard. For the most part, with maybe just one or two minor exceptions, we only hear the uncle in voice-over. Lots and lots of voice-over, narrating about things that we see on screen and what the officer's silence holds over moments, or when he does things like play the harmonium - a melody that his niece hasn't played in years. So much significance in six months or so of this man just *being* there. What will they do? Will communication finally happen vocally, or with physical gestures and things like hands?
I imagine it'll be the same for those who come to La Silence de la Mer that admirers (does one say fans perhaps) of Jean-Pierre Melville's other films, primarily his 60's crime thrillers or the other WW2 resistance epic Army of Shadows: this does not really seem very much like those later movies. In 'Silence', it's got wall-to-wall musical score for one thing by Edgar Bischoff; not a bad score by any means, but it is strange and sometimes the music is accompanying one of the many monologues delivered by the German soldier Werner, which is in contrast to many of Melville's films which lack music in favor of silence. And there is a great deal of narration from the French uncle (just credited as 'L'Oncle' played Robain) which is also in contrast with Melville's style. So it was a little jarring to come to his first film after seeing so many - this doesn't make it a bad thing, just different and unexpected.
The context always matters of course: this was made very soon after the end of the second world war, which Melville fought in and was part of the French resistance. The film's adapted from a book, which is pretty clear by not only the framing (like a Cocteau film of Beauty and the Beast, which gets checked here in reference by the way by Werner, it opens and ends with a book on screen), and it was a book that was kind of an underground release. Melville even adapted it without the rights, something that would almost make it a "fan-film" today, though Vecors liked it enough to let it see release following approval from a 'jury' (see the trivia). But the point is that the film must have been something important to see in France at the time, part of France looking back at what had happened to them, what they allowed, and of course the fervent, dastardly German/Nazi mind-set, and take some steps to move forward.
The narration may be too much at times (it's part of Melville's 'anti-cinematic' aesthetic in relation to adapting a book to the tee), and at first I was bothered by it. It made the film seem old and dated. But as the film went on and I got more into Vernon's performance, it seemed to make more sense about the tension and how, step by step, incrementally, there's a connection made between these very disparate characters. I also liked the last half hour where we see Werner outside of the house and at German HQ or talking with fellow officers and the contrast of his own awakening to culture and French artistic expression with the dogmatic nature of Nazism. It's even a braze and courageously made movie ultimately for how it posits the French civilians like these two (not so much characters but apt props for the narrative) and Werner, who is fleshed out and conflicted and kind of a tragic figure. It's a film the more I think about it I like more, even as it's not as impressive as Melville's later crime films. For what he had to work with (clearly a low budget, mostly shot in the house), Melville gets a lot out of his imagery and slow-build up.
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