Jean-Pierre Melville Season – Un Flic (1971)
I don’t know about you but after six months of restless prowling through these crime sodden Parisian streets I’m exhausted, both spiritually and mentally as we take another walk on Jean-Pierre Melville’s nihilistic wild side. Nevertheless we have just one more score to settle, thus I thought it best to close this season appropriately enough with Melville’s last film which was released a mere year before his death in 1972. Un Flic opens with an atmospheric robbery at a rather implausibly remote coastal bank located in Saint-Jean-de-Monts, the solemn crash and burst of the sea spray providing an elemental expressionistic counterpoint to the criminal’s cool and professional robotic demeanours. The crew is led by Richard Crenna, a US actor making an unusual appearance in this France helmed picture, and he’s probably best known for his patronage of his comrade John in a certain Vietnam veteran franchise . After the robbery goes sideways and one of his fellow is mortally wounded the crew limps back to Paris, burying their ill-gotten gains and evading their collars being felt by the gendarmes led by Melville favourite Alain Delon in his third coolly dispassionate collaboration. New to the scene is Catherine Deneuve in feline femme fatale mode, oscillating between the affections of Delon and Crenna and seemingly playing the angles across both blurred sides of the law, as another train set heist promises to provide that final big score and enable the criminal crew to finally fade into underworld legend for good.
Truth be told it’s a relief to finally padlock this season as you’re probably as bored of reading the same quantifiers as I have in writing them- cold, implacable, minimalist, deadly. Un Flic is Melville’s style refined to its final keen intensity, a remorseless procedural narrative which follows the hunt for the criminal crew after they abandon one of their mortally injured comrades. I guess you can’t say he wasn’t ambitious in his final film, expanded his canvas by planning a second set-piece following the tense opening robbery, a mission involving numerous moving mechanisms as the criminals discreetly assault a moving train via helicopter assisted propulsion. Normally as a critic you raise above such derisive snorts as the SFX being poor due to a films pedigree and vintage, but the exceptionally poor model work and matte backgrounds are deeply distracting, reminiscent of the model work that Hitchcock deployed in some of his 1930’s pictures – you’d have thought the suspension of disbelief would have advanced in the intervening years. As you can discern from the photos the film has an icy cobalt chrome palette which would make James Cameron shiver in admiration, perusing the delicate graduations of the colour blue, reinforcing the icy pallor that runs through the cops, criminals and associated denizens, with barely any warm colour semiotics to counterbalance the overall aura of a remote and isolated annihilation.
“The only feelings mankind has ever inspired in policemen are those of indifference and derision…” is the motto of the film, provided in an opening title screed which is a technique that Melville frequently deployed to frame his films in terms of theme. Although the operative word as always with Melville is ‘mankind’ Catherine Deneuve blesses the feature with a much needed sense of sophistication and sultry champagne, her motives and machinations as deadly as her crimson blood lipstick. Un Flic is particularly sour and nihilistic even by Melville’s standards, the cops drained of all empathy as they ceaseless prowl down out their criminal prey, as we come to the end of the season its almost a blessed relief that Melville passed and could perhaps find some peace in the sweet sleep of eternity. Some of the flourishes are the result of a lack of countervailing force which is a common complaint of a directors twilight years, with no-one prepared or equipped to challenge creative decisions such is their venerable stature within the industry. Spending roughly ten minutes of screen time to show a washing his face and grooming after a rather absurd helicopter to moving rappel strains fidelity to realism and consequent audience patience. Even fans of a well planned and executed deception we are reminded that cinema is equipped with a grammar and syntax that is able to compress or expand time to present information within a context of pace and flow, and when you’re directorial decision are erring toward the realms of the tedious rather then tense the picture is starting to unravel with diagnostic danger. Un Flic is simply too self-indulgent, and quickly goes off the rails after the initial heist, and although it harbors many of Melville’s unique qualifying traits – the minimalism, the nihilism, the gallic masochism – thus closing his influential career with an appropriate synopsis and symbiosis. Now, finally, we can shift our gaze from the grim pastures of 20th century continental Europe to the elemental battlegrounds of feudal Japan, and bow in rapt awe gaze to sensei Kurosawa’s formidable oeuvre….