Le deuxième soufflé [DVD]
Director : Jean-Pierre Melville
Screenplay : Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the and novel Un reglement de comptes by José Giovanni)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1966
Stars : Lino Ventura (Gustave “Gu” Minda), Paul Meurisse (Commissaire Blot), Raymond Pellegrin (Paul Ricci), Christine Fabréga (Manouche), Marcel Bozzuffi (Jo Ricci), Paul Frankeur (Inspector Fardiano), Denis Manuel (Antoine Ripa), Jean Négroni (L’homme), Michel Constantin (Alban), Pierre Zimmer (Orloff), Pierre Grasset (Pascal)
One of the longest films in Jean-Pierre Melville’s oeuvre, Le deuxième soufflé is an ambitious meditation on fate disguised as a crime caper. Having shifted to the gangster film with 1962’s Le doulos, Melville attempted to stretch the genre to its existential limits, using traditional cops-and-robbers plot machinations as a foundation to explore desperation and the desire to survive. The film’s title, which literally means “second wind,” is ironically evocative of the manner in which the film’s hero, an escaped criminal named Gustave “Gu” Minda (Lino Ventura), will spend the entire film trying to survive long enough to claim his new lease on life--a second wind that may never come.
The film opens in the midst of a prison break, which immediately establishes the film’s emphasis on physicality and abstraction instead of obvious exposition (not a word is spoken for nearly 10 minutes). In fact, Melville (who wrote the screenplay in addition to directing) structures the film’s half hour around a confusing serious of events and character introductions that don’t take on narrative resonance until later in the film, thus drawing the viewer in and establishing the stakes involved in following the plot, which is in some ways tightly focused and in other ways amazingly loose. This is both the film’s strength and its weakness, as it allows Melville to bring in various subplots that help create the film’s overall atmosphere of fatalistic intrigue, but also creates a slightly dragging effect that makes the film feel longer than it actually is.
In its broadest sense, the narrative follows Gu as he moves from hideout to hideout in a bid to reclaim his ever elusive freedom while being tracked by the dogged police inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse). Having spent the previous decade in jail for holding up a train, Gu is something of a relic, part of an older underground world whose strict adherence to a criminal’s code is increasingly (and, in the film’s moral worldview, tragically) outdated. Gu has maintained many good relations, and he stays alive as long as he does largely because of the goodwill he has engendered by sticking to his guns and his way of life. In this sense the film is very much in line with both a number of French crime films in the 1960s that focused on aging gangsters in a modern world, but also Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), which chronicled “honorable” criminals trying to survive in an increasingly dishonorable world, albeit within the realm of the vanishing Old West instead of the Parisian crime scene.
The centerpiece of Le deuxième soufflé is an elaborate armored car heist that stands out visually from the rest of the film in its emphasis on openness, rather than constriction. Much of the film takes place in cramped hotel rooms, crowded bars, and the interiors of various automobiles, but for the heist Melville takes us out to a dramatically vast and largely deserted highway in the mountains. Like the opening prison break, the heist sequence allows Melville to indulge his special proclivity for conveying intricate action without any dialogue, and having it take place in an open expanse has a strangely intensifying effect, especially in contrast to the rest of the film’s interiority (you can see the same principle at work in David Fincher’s Seven, a perpetually dark and claustrophobic film that brilliantly stages its climax in arid sunlight in an open field).
As Gu, Lino Ventura is largely repeating the character he played in Claude Saudet’s Classe tous risques (1960), a character study about a gangster holing up in various hotel rooms and hovels while trying to evade the noose that is ever tightening around him. In both films Ventura’s character is intelligent, resourceful, and quite powerful, but also tragic, an almost Shakespearean combination that the squat, burly actor seems particularly adept at embodying. The connections between Classe tous risques and Le deuxième soufflé are not surprising given that Melville was a serious admirer of Saudet’s effort and both films were based on novels by José Giovanni, a real-life criminal who drew inspiration for his fictions from his actual experiences (he also provided the source material for Jacques Becker’s great 1960 prison-escape film Le trou). At this stage in his career, Melville was clearly shifting toward a more existential approach that used the crime genre as a skeleton on which to hang his fatalistic character studies, and while Le deuxième soufflé may not be his strongest effort, it represents a crucial step in his development as a filmmaker and icon.
|Le deuxième soufflé Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||October 7, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The new high-definition transfer was made from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and digitally restored. The last of Melville’s black-and-white films, Le deuxième soufflé is a decidedly gray affair, with heavy emphasis on mid-range tones as opposed to a strong emphasis on contrasting black and white. The image looks quite good throughout, its pleasantly filmlike appearance marred with only a few barely noticeable signs of age. The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from an optical track print and digitally restored, and it sounds fine.|
|The screen-specific feature-length audio commentary is a dual affair by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, and film critic Geoff Andrew, who also works as a programmer for the British Film Institute. Recorded together, Vincendeau and Andrew have a nice rapport and a ton of complimentary knowledge that adds indelibly to a thorough appreciation of the film. There is also a new 12-minute interview with filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, who served as publicity agent on the film. Tavernier is wonderfully candid as he talks about his dealings with Melville, the film itself, and Melville’s contentious relationship with novelist José Giovanni. In addition to that interview, there is also some archival film from French television: 4 minutes of newsreel footage shot on the film’s set, which includes a brief interview with Melville, Lino Ventura, and Paul Meurisse, and a 25-minute episode of the program Cinema, which intercuts lengthy interviews with Melville and Ventura with footage from the film’s production, which allows us to see the director in action. The included trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen, and the insert booklet has a fine essay by film scholar Adrian Danks.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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