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  • Dark Matter
  • Emma Fuller (bio)

Jean-Pierre Melville's films ricochet between the city and the country, extracting the austere looming character of each setting to its utmost visual potential. The barren landscapes of Le cercle rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, FR/IT, 1970) and the stormy coastline of Un fl ic's (Jean-Pierre Melville, FR/IT, 1972) introductory sequence are evoked in the same language used to describe their urban counterparts, shown as vast networks of streets emptied within their hardened, built environments.

Within these fields of operation, Melville off sets his characters, crystallized, fully formed, and indifferent. The dialectic of psychological isolation with a profound delineation of setting allows his actors to slide in and out of a variety of landscapes, untouched by their environs. Dedicated to an endeavor, the settings change while the actor remains the stalwart fixation of his own pursuits and the cinematic frame (see the opening Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, FR/ IT, 1967)). The go-to in Melville's crime oeuvre, Alain Delon, the epitome of detachment and a cool eye, moves through the French city and countryside on a sequence of singular missions for the honorable criminal. There is no potential affect in the setting; the spatial qualities within the cinematography are subservient to a description of the character and, subsequently, the storyline. Moments of unorthodox Melville, when the director subverts his own framework, are uniquely memorable. In Le cercle rouge, the surrealist imagery of reptilian creatures emerging and stalking a recumbent man in a gregariously striped wallpaper room exert a visceral pressure, employed to describe the mind closing in on itself and draw out the spatial compression wrought by the cinematography. [End Page 108]

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Figure 1.

Frame from L'armée des ombres/Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville. Man is articulated in the most spatial sense; feet planted firmly on ground, he encounters vertical mass.

In Melville's L'armée des ombres/Army of Shadows (FR/IT, 1969), he momentarily suspends this dialectic of person distilled from place when the character is finally overcome by where he finds himself to be. A singular moment where the spatial is temporarily privileged over the whole enterprise of the film as a mental theater of heightened qualities unharnessed from the directorial dictum. For this moment, the protagonist, played by Lino Ventura, stands incapacitated by a sullen expanse of dark matter. Everything defers to the awesome irreality of this spatial construct. The dark cloud exhales slowly, encroaching and compressing Ventura towards the camera. It is soft but completely opaque and more impenetrable than steel or stone construction.

The idée fixe of separation between person and place that creates Melville's archetypical solitary man and enforces the narrative and psychological framework for the film is paused for a split second.

Man is articulated in the most spatial sense. Feet planted firmly on ground, he encounters vertical mass. All of the cinematic space is suddenly activated, diminished in his foreground as that which he senses is witnessed from behind.

This frame is extracted from a short and highly structured sequence within the film, breaking the frenetic activity of the resistance movement in occupied France. It is a suspended hallucination embedded in a brief narrative episode within the two-and-a-quarter hours of the film. This sequences the capture, imprisonment, and escape of Ventura. Initiated by his arrest in an unnaturally busy Parisian café, the scene cuts to Ventura and his imprisoned peers in a sizeable, barren room. [End Page 109]

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Figure 2.

(left).The setting of the frame extraction, L'armée des ombres. Figure 3 (right). Hiroshi Sugimoto time-lapse photograph.

Within a minute and a half, the arrested are escorted through windowless corridors; the sensation of a buried environment is accentuated by the dread of their procession. A door opens onto an immense chamber the exact proportion of the cinematic frame. Melville had located a space that was the precise extension of his camera, expressing the interiority of the elongated lens, the ideal construction within which to unburden the full gravity of his capabilities (Figure 2).



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pp. 108-110
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