Plot: What’s it about?
Le Silence De La Mer was the first feature film directed by the legendary French director Jean Pierre Melville. The basis of the film was a 1942 novel published clandestinely during the German occupation in France by Vercors. Melville attempted to get the rights to the film from Vercors and was promptly refused. Vercors firmly believed that the book should never be filmed. Melville filmed the movie without his permission on an extremely low budget, buying film stock as he could afford it. Melville promised to destroy the negative if he had not done a proper job. Vercors organized a screening for numerous resistance fighters and polled them on if Melville should receive the rights or the negatives be burned. Obviously, Melville triumphed.
It is interesting to know that Melville knew that this would be his first film while he was still involved in the resistance movement. As far as first films go, this seems about as daunting a book to film as possible. The film relies on silence as a form of resistance, which in theory should be unfilmable. He pulls it off.
The plot of the film is simple. A man and his niece live in a cottage in the French country side during WWII. One day a couple soldiers come to inspect their premises and sleep in their barn. A few days later, a young German Liutenant arrives at their door. He proceeds to move into their home and take a room upstairs. They resist the only way that they can, which U.S. By remaining absolutely silent at all times in his presence. Each night the soldier comes into their living room in civilian clothes and delivers soliloquies on numerous subjects including his love of French art and culture.
The movie is a solid film. Acting is good. Directing is fantastic. The overall arc of the plot comes to a finish that absolutely makes sense. The film manages to be tense and menacing while also never giving in to making a monster out of the German. Given the material, Melville achieved an incredible success.
That said, the film is a bit on the slow side. I enjoyed the film, but I don’t personally see myself rewatching it numerous times in the future. It is a film that you will watch once and enjoy, but you will probably not find yourself wanting to watch it more than once. Therefore, I highly recommend you rent this film before you decide to purchase it. I still prefer it to Les Enfants Terribles, his next film, but I prefer Melville’s later works such as Bob Le Flambeur or Le Cercle Rouge.
Video: How’s it look?
Criterion did an excellent job on the transfer of the film. The movie retains a good amount of grain to leave in details. Depth and clarity are excellent. The black levels are excellent. This transfer is absolutely perfect in regards to faithfulness to the source. The original elements must have been in great shape, because this film looks much better than most films from that time period. That said, most of the film takes place in just one location, so don’t expect the film to feel like a journey with lots to look at along the way. The film is intentionally claustrophobic, but has moments of relief when the outside of the cottage is shown in winter as just one example. I was very impressed overall.
Audio: How’s it sound?
This is a monaural track so it is relatively limited. That said, Criterion have done a tremendous job in preserving clarity in the audio. The dialogue is crisp and clear and the eerie score keeps the tension in the room. Another excellent transfer by Criterion. Kudos!
Supplements: What are the extras?
- 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown (1946) – Presented here is Jean-Pierre Melville’s first directorial work, the short film 24 heures de la vie d’un clown a.k.a. 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown. This short feature is a portrait of an average day for two clowns in Paris. It is interesting to see how Melville started out. In French, with optional English subtitles. (19 min, 1080p).
- Code Name: Melville – Produced by Olivier Bohler in 2008, this documentary film focuses on Jean-Pierre Melville and shines more light on his involvement in the French Resistance. The film also discusses his film work and influence on generations of filmmakers. Included in it are extracts from archival interviews with the French director, his secretary and friend Leo Fortel, filmmaker and critic Andre S. Labarthe, Melville’s nephew Remy Grumbach, veteran Hong Kong director Johnnie To (Election), German director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum), actor Pierre Grasset (Rififi), Japanese director Masahiro Kobayashi (Man Walking on Snow), and French director Bertrand Tavernier (Coup de Torchon), amongst others. In French and Cantonese, with optional English subtitles (and printed French subtitles for the Cantonese dialog). This feature was absolutely fantastic. I enjoyed watching this documentary almost as much as the film. Melville is not only one of my favorite directors, but was also a fascinating guy. It was great to see more about his participation in the resistance and the death of his brother during WWII. Don’t miss this one!(77 min, 1080p).
- Melville Steps Out of the Shadows – Produced by Pierre-Henri Gilbert in 2010, this one focuses almost exclusively on Le Silence De La Mer. Included in it are interviews with writer and film historian Denitza Bantcheva (Jean-Pierre Melville: From the Films to the Man), cinematographer Pierre Lhomme (Army of Shadows), director Volker Schlöndorff, writer Rui Nogueira (Cinema According to Melville), journalist and filmmaker Philippe Labro, and actress Nicole Stéphane (Les Enfants Terribles). In French, with optional English subtitles. This was another excellent documentary! I couldn’t believe that Criterion provided not one but two excellent documentaries on the disc. Definitely worth watching.(43 min, 1080p).
- Ginette Vincendeau – This was the least interesting of the special features. Would have been a good feature had this material not been so extensively covered in the previous documentaries. In English, not subtitled. (18 min, 1080p).
- Cinepanorama – Presented here is an archival interview with Jean-Pierre Melville about Le Silence De La Mer and the adaptation of Vercors’ novel, which was conducted by Francois Chalais. It was originally aired on April 18, 1959, as part of the French television program Cinepanorama, which was directed by Jean Bescont. In French, with optional English subtitles. (2 min, 1080p).
- Booklet – An illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a selection from Rui Nogueira’s 1971 book Melville on Melville. If you buy the Blu Ray, make sure the booklet is included. I have wanted to own the book Melville On Melville ever since I saw Le Cercle Rouge. Any excerpts make my fan boy heart extremely excited!
The Bottom Line
Le Silence De La Mer is a strange film. It is a good film, but I consider it a minor work compared to the magic Melville would produce later on. Melville did the best job that anybody could have done with the material. If you are considering a purchase and already are a fan of the film, rest easy, Criterion did an excellent job on the transfer and really outdid themselves with the supplements. To me, the supplements were actually good enough on their own to warrant a purchase of this Blu-ray. They are that good. I recommend that before you purchase this film you watch it for yourself on Hulu where it is currently streaming. Props to Criterion for their fantastic job on the supplements, which are truly outstanding.