REVIEW – Le Silence de la Mer (1949)

FilmJuice have my review of Jean-Pierre Melville’s first film Le Silence de la Mer.

Given that Melville is best known for such noir crime thrillers as Bob Le Flambeur (1955) and Le Samurai (1967), it is surprising to discover that his first film is neither a thriller nor an homage to the noir classics of Hollywood’s golden age. In fact, Le Silence de la Mer is an adaptation of a novel written by a member of the French resistance. Densely atmospheric and pointedly stripped of all extraneous dialogue, the film tells the story of the relationship between a pair of French people and the Nazi officer they are ordered to provide with lodgings. Every evening, the Nazi officer comes home and trots out a few pleasantries that the French people pointedly ignore. As the months go by, the officer’s love of France and desire to talk bubbles over into a series of impassioned speeches about his hope for the future of Franco-German relations. Aside from being beautifully composed and wonderfully still, Le Silence de la Mer is also wonderfully ‘of its time’ thematically speaking:

Aside from its technical brilliance, Le Silence de la Mer also offers a fascinating snapshot of a French intellectual class that was still trying to come to terms with the implications of widespread collaboration. Indeed, between the officer’s status as a ‘Good German’ and his lengthy speeches on the greatness of French culture, it is easy to read this film as an ode to the majesty of France (the film is based on a novel written by a member of the resistance) but look beyond the foreground and you find a morally ambiguous world full of silently complicity French people, bars closed to Jews and a Nazi delivering what was effectively the Petainist line that France would become greater through collaboration. While Le Silence de la Mer may lack the slow-burning outrage of Melville’s more famous indictment of French collaboration L’Armee des Ombres (1969) this is still a heroically ambiguous film from a time when France was desperate to escape all suggestion of moral ambiguity.

As someone who owns the Mieville DVD box set, I was somewhat taken aback by how different this film feels to many of his better-known works. Indeed, contained in this still and ambiguous early film are the blueprints for an entirely different cinematic career… what if Melville had not become a maker of thrillers but a more traditionally art house experimentalist? This is a film that captures the attractions of just such a possibility.