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October 09, 2008

Le Deuxieme Souffle

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Jean-Pierre Melville - 1966
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

While it's terrific that Jean-Pierre Melville is getting the Criterion treatment, during much Le Deuxieme Souffle I kept wondering why this film never got a theatrical release in the U.S. During the time I lived in New York City, Melville was a filmmaker I would read about but never see, with the exception of Les Enfants Terribles. I've only been able to start catching up on Melville over the past couple of years. Based on the seven of his films that I have seen, Le Deuxieme Souffle is one of Melville's best films. I try to avoid shopworn phrases but, yes, this is one very cool movie.

Taken from a novel by Jose Giovanni, Lino Ventura is the escaped criminal, Gu (Gustave) Minda, who takes the proverbial last job as part of a high stakes heist. The action takes place during the last week of November of 1958 through the first days of January. Titles appear to remind the audience of what day certain action takes place leading up to the robbery of a shipment of platinum. Gu shows up in time to save old flame Manouche, stepping into the rivalry between two gangsters who front their activities with legitimate businesses. Accepting the heist job, Gu unknowingly is working for the gangster who killed Manouche's business partner.

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The heist is only one part of the film. What Melville is primarily interested in is Gu's sense of honor, the code he lives by, and that he hopes others adhere to. Ventura was forty-six at the time of filming, and is presented as a guy who is starting to get old. Minda makes the leap across the prison roof, but barely is able to catch the freight train that takes him to Paris. Christine Fabrega's Manouche is a woman still attractive, but no longer youthful. Added to this mix is Paul Meurisse as Blot, a police detective who is so familiar with the Parisian gangsters he deals with that he can supply them with their own fantastic alibis before they are offered, spoken with deadpan, sarcastic delivery. Le Deuxieme Souffle is about people who know that they have limited futures. This may be best seen in a shot of Minda, alone on New Year's Eve, ripping off the last page of a daily calendar, leaving only a blank page.

Much of the action takes place in empty, or nearly empty spaces. The buildings are crumbling, while the interiors are shabby and in need of repair. It is not surprising that the only thing shiny and new in Minda's hideout is the lock that isolates him from the outside world. The heist takes place on a rocky stretch of road that gets little traffic. The heist partially takes place in the rain, while another scene is of Minda interrogated in a muddy lot. As in his final film, Dirty Money, Melville likes to put is characters in a nowhere town stuck in crappy weather. Melville's Paris seems empty of people, even during the daytime. Against this austerity is the what appears as a visual non sequitur, at least initially, of a dance troupe performing in a dive more bar that nightclub, appearing in the early Paris based scenes. There is really no reason for the girls to be in the movie from a narrative standpoint, but they do look good making their moves against the cool jazz style score of Bernard Gerard. In the end, Le Deuxieme Souffle is about people who are alone, even when they are with other people, fighting to maintain their individual sense of integrity in the face of compromises imposed by others.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 9, 2008 12:11 AM