In the opening pages of the aptly titled Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, Ginette Vincendeau discusses the photograph of Melville that graces her book’s cover. The photograph shows the Stetson-wearing director perusing the pages of the December 1966 edition of the journal Arts. Large letters on its cover read, “MELVILLE accuse TRUFFAUT.” Vincendeau admirably teases out the historical, critical, social and specifically auteurist implications of this image, immediately allowing her to position Melville in symbolic relation to his beloved America, currents in French criticism and filmmaking, and the self-conscious construction of his “outsider” auteur image, amongst other things.
It is in such moments, dotted liberally throughout this book, when Vincendeau interrogates a particular image, sequence or element of Melville’s films, that her writing is at its most evocative and provocative. Here Vincendeau approaches the most evident yet difficult elements of Melville’s universe, its particular, delicate sensibility and the style that is routinely evoked yet rarely fully described or analysed. Admittedly, despite its clear intentions, Vincendeau’s book also fails to discuss this style fully enough, approaching it in a piecemeal fashion across the volume (only in the brief conclusion does it take centre-stage). The book is much more successful in the account it gives of the sensibility of Melville’s work, and the various contexts this may have emerged from (picking up on Colin MacArthur’s groundbreaking analysis).
Although some may see this as a rather old-fashioned auteurist account of Melville’s cinema – happily short on attempts to psychoanalyse the director or read his largely undocumented private life in relation to the films – it is nevertheless a particularly nimble contemporary example of the genre. Vincendeau clearly sets out her intention to provide an analysis of the films rather than a critical biography, and her not-totally-chronological organisation facilitates this. The book contains many fascinating snippets of information about the production of the films, Melville’s relation to his collaborators, and the critical response to his work. For these qualities alone, Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris is an important addition to criticism of Melville’s work.
Nevertheless, Vincendeau’s book suffers a little from approaching each of the films through roughly the same rubric: a few brief initial observations, a plot synopsis, a record of box-office performance (curiously restricted to France only) and critical reception, followed by a more film-specific analysis of elements such as genre, adaptation, historical and social context, and the relation of the director’s films to questions of gender. In her discussions of this last topic, Vincendeau attempts to shed light on the representation of women in the director’s largely male-dominated universe, while both justifying and questioning her own fascination with his work. This aspect of the analysis is not totally successful: the author is obviously defensive about allegations of misogyny directed at Melville, and the claim that he has little time for complex female characterisation. But it does help her to account for the incompletion and abstraction of Melville’s universe, and to locate in the films an extremely personal, obsessive and exclusive vision.
It is also pleasing that Vincendeau does not allow her awareness of Melville’s limitations to get in the way of her extremely felt appreciation of his work, though it does give some of her writing a not inappropriate muted quality which leads her to over-emphasise the abstract genre regimes that many of the films dwell within, and precludes a more boldly opinionated approach. Thus, for a book that is often concerned with the critical evaluation of Melville’s cinema, the analysis is surprisingly even-handed. Rather than entering into the spirit of Melville’s own opinionated critical practice – full of hierarchies of films, directors and movements – Vincendeau distances her mode of analysis from that of much early auteurism. Melville’s career provides an ideal auteurist “test case”, and like a number of contemporary accounts of the waxing and waning of auteurism, Vincendeau’s book goes out of its way to add meat to what has often seen as a somewhat unsubstantiated critical discourse.
The structure of the book also helps in this regard. Each chapter deals with a different group of films leading into a discussion of particular aspects of Melville’s work. These groupings are somewhat conventional, with chapters devoted to Melville’s great Resistance trilogy (allowing Vincendeau to survey the richer but still limited world of women represented in these films); those films with a particularly acute relation to American cinema and the “independence” of the New Wave (Bob le flambeur  Deux hommes dans Manhattan , and L’Ainé des Ferchaux, ); the increasingly pessimistic and brutal adaptations of Série Noire (Le Doulos, 1962, and Le Deuxième Souffle ); and the abstract, muted and stylistically beautiful series of crime/gangster films starring Alain Delon that conclude his career (Le Samouraï , Le Cercle rouge , and Un flic ). Not surprisingly, the least successful chapter is the second, which attempts to group together the early films that fit into none of these more evocative and central classifications (central in that they help define the essence of Melville’s cinema). These latter films are relegated to the category (more problematic with Les Enfants terribles  than its seldom-discussed counterparts 24 heures et la vie d’un clown  and Quand tu liras cette letter ) of “stylistic exercises” – as if exercises in style were not the common coin of Melville’s work.
Nevertheless, the division of the films into these overlapping categories (as Vincendeau suggests, L’Armée des ombres  is stylistically and existentially of a piece with the late crime films as well as the Resistance trilogy) does allow Vincendeau to pay close attention to several lesser-known films in the Melville canon. I’m not sure that the author ultimately rehabilitates such films as Quand tu liras cette letter and Deux hommes dans Manhattan – however fascinating they become in the context of Melville’s whole career – but it is certainly pleasing to see her discussing them in detail. Vincendeau’s analysis of L’Ainé des Ferchaux is considerably more successful, taking the film as a nexus allowing her to discuss the complexities of Melville’s (and France’s) fascination with America. Along with some of the passages on Deux hommes dans Manhattan, this discussion also throws light on Melville’s often-fraught relationship with broader trends and specific figures in both French and world cinema.
One of the reasons that Vincendeau begins her analysis with a discussion of that photograph of Melville reading Arts is that it juxtaposes contradictory ideas and myths about the director: his Western-style hat a little in contrast to the crime films he commonly makes, the popular older filmmaker engaged in critical debate with his younger protégés in the New Wave, the man of images posing as a man of letters, and so on. But this choice of image is also very precise. By highlighting and foregrounding the public spat between Melville and Truffaut, Vincendeau is able to pinpoint both Melville’s importance to French film culture and his antagonistic relationship to various elements and movements within it. She reads it as an image deliberately constructed by Melville, placing himself both within and outside of a broader film and arts community. This is the great strength of Vincendeau’s book: rather than present Melville as a totally consistent maverick figure (the outsider auteur he is most often characterised as) she places him within the various histories of French filmmaking and criticism.
Melville’s career is commonly broken into parts, the initial stage of independence and freewheeling proto-New Wave aesthetics making way for the more “mature”, austere and mainstream genre work. Instead, Vincendeau argues that Melville is a filmmaker who was always equally inside and outside of the major trends and institutions of French filmmaking (and she thoroughly convinces the reader of the need to place Melville squarely in this French context). Her analysis of the critical and popular reception of Melville’s cinema helps us to understand the critical neglect that the director has suffered over time as well as its popular recognition (Melville’s films were often very financially successful and few can be considered outright failures). The other strength of Vincendeau’s analysis is its evocative portrait of the shifting fashions and allegiances of French film criticism, a fascinating corollary to the patterns of loyalty and betrayal that define Melville’s cinematic world. Appropriately, as in Melville’s films, America remains a fantasy image only perceivable through its stylised cinema.
Ginette Vincendeau’s Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris fills an important gap in English-language criticism on the great French director. Despite some limitations, it is extremely valuable for the light that it casts on various cultural and critical contexts that are partially unavailable to English-language scholars. It is also the first full-scale account of Melville’s work in English – providing an important, if belated, follow-up to Rui Nogueira’s magisterial interview book, Melville on Melville (1971), from which it liberally quotes. It is a timely publication, as Melville’s critical stocks are probably higher now than at virtually any time throughout his career and the years following his death; the perceived lack of social and even precise historical content in his work less visible at a distance of over 30 years. The book may have benefited from attempts to place Melville’s films more fully within international contexts other than the representational fantasy of America that preoccupied the director. A fuller account of the later critical reception of his work and its influence on a range of directors from the 1970s onwards would also have been useful. Nevertheless, the somewhat hermetic approach adopted by Vincendeau is appropriate to Melville’s cinema. As she moves across the director’s last and most abstract, dream-like film, Un flic, it would seem inappropriate for her to open her analysis out fully to critical terrain beyond the fantastical, generic realm of the film itself. This is perhaps why the conclusion to her book seems like a reiteration or tailing-off – an afterglow of the intense experiential analysis that precedes it.
Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, Ginette Vincendeau, BFI, London, 2003.
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