Le Cercle Rouge (1970) Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville


Oh yes, I can see why Aki Kaurismäki loves Melville (adores more likely). This is the kind of cinema that makes reality look better and fantasy look like reality. There is that magic of the past too, the fact that somehow everything was designed so much better a few decades back in the last century. The fashionable clothes, the groovy furniture, the toy-like cars, and the dramatic camera angles all make Le Cercle Rouge great entertainment.

As far as plot goes, it's a pretty usual cops vs. criminals piece, but plot is secondary here. Maybe acting comes before it too. Funnily enough, the acting is rather understated and there isn't much dialogue for example. I hate Alain Delon (because he was an asshole), but yes, he is believable and cool as the desperate cold crook.

What does this movie have to offer in terms of thought and afterthought? Nothing major really. The surface is the content. If I look at the characters – all male – their attitudes towards each other and towards women (Delon is constantly seen abusing pictures of a blonde he clearly dated at some point) are without caring, almost continuously violent actually. Are people bad inherently or is there goodness in us? That's probably a question this film wants to ponder at. It was probably an acceptable question in 1970. I find it a little old fashioned for 2013. In 1970 it was still ok to make art simply from a male dominated point of view. Questions of power distribution, good and evil intent tend to be discussed in art still, but the perspective is more varied. I know, Le Cercle Rouge is entertainment. I truly enjoyed it. The cops killed the baddies and that's all we needed to know at the end.

This morning, during an early lunch and just before we left Tallin (we had taken a little, much-needed-holiday), me and Astrid had a discussion about the current state of narrative in Cinema. It went along the lines that certain theories suggest most narrative-led feature films have disappeared from the cineplex – replaced by the superhero/visual/ 3D spectacular – and made their way over to the small screen (HBO series etc). The latest Richard Linklater picture (Before Midnight)  is providing critics the chance to exclaim cinema's possibilities with a sharp script. For me, I've always enjoyed the subversive qualities of mixing good dialogue in a genre that normally excludes such privilege (The Western, war film, musical etc). Other approches to give your cinema more depth and intellectual resonance work too. Take the work of Jean-Pierre Melville, where the dialogue plays second fiddle to  the look and atmosphere created using the true essence of cinema: yes, the visual aesthetic. Le Cercle Rouge is a late, great example of this.

Throughout watching Le Cercle Rouge I found myself as excited by the framing of each shot or the cutting together of each scene as much as anything the actors or plot was giving me. Composition in Melville's films is all, the first scene from Le Cercle Rouge becomes agressive merely from the way it's edited, when in fact all we are watching is a conversation in a car. Color use in the film normally matches Alain Delon's almost ever-present beige Mackintosh (and boy does he know how to wear it). Delon plays Corey, a thief who is released from jail after 5 years and goes straight back into crime. Le Cercle Rouge becomes an inadvertent road movie when Delon teams up by accident with on-the-run murderer Vogel (played by the great Italian actor Gian-Maria Volonte). Throw in the police chief who cares for his fluffy cats (the excellent Andre Bourvil) and the hitman (Yves Montand) who we're introduced to by witnessing one of his wild hallucinations (heroin withdrawal?) and the scene is set for a classic.

Melville uses very little dialogue in this picture, yet much is revealed through gesture, glances, certain angles and so on. Suspense is optimum. Even though I have lost a lot for Delon after watching a documentary about german singer Nico, he is perfectly in balance with Melville's vision. Le Cercle Rouge is a master class in its genre, and certainly one of Melville's great films. But it also shows that dialogue does not need to be smart or witty or deep to create a great picture. What we see with our eyes taps into the essence of cinema and in this respect Le Cercle Rouge delivers.


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