Le Deuxième Souffle

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 16, 2015

From a practically abstract prison-break opening director Jean-Pierre Melville moves on to a more and more concrete, systematic, comprehensive portrayal of what they used to call the lower depths. In this combination of stylization and near reportage he fashions what must be his greatest film. (Or is that Army of Shadows? And I realize that I’ve just alienated those of you who belong to the Church of Le Samourai.) That’s saying something! It’s quite an impossible, alchemical concoction really. Digress, or plain stop, or linger over the details of the organizations and of the crimes to an almost perverse degree. Linger over characters and interactions and especially settings in the same way. Expect us to feel suspenseful about it. Expect us to care too, and for more than one side at that. We do. Masterful.

Ventura. Meurisse. Ranks of interesting types alongside and behind. Armies and all. Having us consider and appreciate the actual ethical dimensions of the underworld—what with the manifold corruptions of the overworld—without ever trying to justify what shouldn’t or can’t be justified. It’s all quite dizzying. There something very important going on here with regard to the portrayal of unseemly activity and unseemly lives. We’ve got an out-and-out gangster movie here. These are hard and villainous characters, connected to hard and villainous, even infernal realities, and not at too great a remove. And the movie doesn’t just hint; you more than get a sense it all. But even though films in this period are pushing the boundaries, and even though this one pushes too, it still seems to stop short. The thing is, this decorum toward a deeply indecorous reality is not inauthenticity, or cowardice.

From films like this, through Mr. Scorcese’s often valuable, increasingly unenlightening, finally exhausting explorations, or wallows, through to the present reaping of futurist caper/gangster whirlwinds, it might well be argued that movies just keep getting more scabrous, less and less edifying. Does anyone know or remember Pastor Hall, that brave British film that portrayed a German prison camp, way early in the war? It’s been praised, but everyone agrees on how short it really fell, maybe because it couldn’t imagine how bad things really were. It’s true—you’ve got to take things on. We need Night and Fog, and maybe even Goodfellas. But can it be true, and will the seculars allow themselves to consider it? You don’t always have to go all the way!

It’s clearer in the way that the befuddled tend to think about sex in film. Panning to the candle on the window sill may be a dumb cliché, but there’s something to be said for making a valid point through indirect means, or by calling upon our understanding and experience outside of the movies. As far as Melville’s film goes, with regard to sin and wickedness, they’ve really struck an ideal balance. We know it, we see it, but at the end we’re still standing, informed but unbesmirched. Intentional? An imposition of my own perspective from the outside? Interesting questions, and maybe beside the point. Let’s by all means have adult movies, and occasionally the infernal ones that come bursting out of some wounded and traumatized soul. Every subject is in play. But let’s make them and communicate it by inference, once in a while.