Thursday, August 24, 2017

Cop in the box

The TV is on but no one’s watching it. It drones, blasts and cackles (in short, it’s working) in another room. Yet, a doubt takes hold: is this faint muffled sound really the TV? What if it had turned off all by itself? What if it had started quietly dreaming aloud, zombie like? So, to check it out: we watch. And we see. 
In a train, a yellow-haired giant carries a black attaché case full of white powder and settles into his compartment for the night. From a helicopter flying over the train, a man climbs down a rope, slips into one of the toilets, takes off his flying suit and undoes his sneakers to emerge in a dressing gown, forces the door open using a big magnet, knocks out the sleeping giant, steals the attaché case, goes back into the toilet, gets dressed again, comes out and heads back to his helicopter. All this in real time, without a word*. It isn’t Mission Impossible, it’s Un flic, Jean-Pierre Melville’s last film (1972). 
It’s rare for a film’s sound not to end up smashed to pieces when it shifts to TV. It’s the law of the jungle here, that’s to say whoever roars the loudest**. A worthless law, since, besides its weak technical quality, TV sound never goes beyond the level of descriptive sound effects. A law one can react to by shouting even louder (which advertising does) or, more seldom, by making less noise. Because ‘less noise’ on TV is as disturbing as when you suddenly no longer hear a child play. 
The Melville of Un flic is that very serious child who has chosen his toys once and for all, who is dead set on them and will never budge. Long since broken, the toys in question are amazed they can sustain the shock of a story again, resisting once more the tests of time and images. Resistance interests Melville. Men’s Resistance against the Occupation, and then the resistance of bodies to what degrades their image. 
Melville’s toys are men and the (zero sum) game is based on masculine friendship. But this (which we know) is not the crucial thing. The crucial thing is that in 1972 Melville takes narcissism to the limit and doesn’t even pretend to bring in young people (or women: Deneuve is minimal) to his story. He has the cool nerve just to film people of his own age (he’s 55), guys in their forties or fifties who are competent but slow, professional but encumbered. 
If the film weren’t so sombrely hieratic, it would be burlesque. The burlesque comedy of an aesthete who contrives to multiply an accessory (a suit, glasses, a face, a Burberry, a colour, a background noise) times two, times three, times four, times n. Although the film’s star, Delon is hard put to escape from this game of mirrors where everything is cloned***. So much so that the characters’ emotions, rather than being kept in beneath the mask of the actors, are constantly coming out and proliferating from shot to shot. It only takes two characters at a distance from one another to light a cigarette at the same time for all the familiar reference points to falter (and not just the old metaphysics of Good and Evil, now somewhat dilapidated). All it takes is for someone to look and an object comes to meet him, always the ‘right’ object, always the one that needed to be seen and which awaited only that: being seen. This is what happens to a flawless world: it proliferates within its limits. 
Why is it so beautiful? Because it’s vulnerable, because it ‘connects’ everything and ‘holds’ nothing. Because it is so easy to speak of ‘mannerism’. Why is it so beautiful on TV? Because on TV, the all too visible intimism of Melville’s cinema becomes pure and simple intimacy. This intimacy is no longer a moral ‘value’ (shame, whatever), it’s the very stuff of Un flic, the sole reality whereby the small screen can serve as a box for precious things. The small screen becomes a jewel box. 
What’s in the box? Delicate things, indeed. Quavering inserts, seconds of gravity, breaths of pathos. Soberly dressed killers who go to some lengths to get some sleep for their over-muscled bodies. Men who are never more naked than when they’re engaged in the incidental toils of keeping fit. The clumsy eroticism of the heavily built and the maternal gaze of the drag queen upon her big man****.  
In Un flic, Melville no longer idealises, nor sublimates, nor moralises. Like all great directors, he ends up settling for filming what - that’s to say who - he loves. 

* Real time works here only because it only covers ordinary events from a script perspective. For the mysticism of real time and the blackmail around absolute present, see the Gulf War on television.  
** If television was a pet dog, sound would be its leash.  
*** At the time when Melville directs his last films, I barely noticed them. Cruel irony, since at the time when Cahiers where all about détournement and re-use of the codes of dominant cinema, the only French film maker who successfully managed this operation of internal neutralisation of the star system is precisely Melville. Bourvil is not revealed as a great actor in Le cercle rouge (he was already one), but reaches the genius of singular anonymity. The same goes for Delon and Montand. A great injustice.  
**** I must confess that at the time, I only liked Tadzio. A great injustice (bis).
First published in Libération on 21 October 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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