REVIEW: Blu-ray Only Release: Le Cercle Rouge

Film: Le Cercle Rouge
Release date: 13th September 2010
Certificate: PG
Running time: 140 mins
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Starring: Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Bourvil, François Périer, Gian Maria Volonté
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Studio: Optimum
Format: Blu-ray
Country: France/Italy

Jean Pierre Melville opens his 1970 heist thriller Le Cercle Rouge with a quote attributed to Buddha: “When men, though unaware of it, must meet again someday, anything can happen to any one of them and they may follow diverging paths to the given day when, ineluctably they will be reunited within the red circle.” Like the quote that opened his earlier Le Samouraï (1967), Melville made it up, but it’s a fabrication that perfectly encapsulates the fatalistic element of the film, and a typically subjective approach to the crime genre from the French master auteur.

Melville regular Alain Delon plays recently released prisoner Corey, who finds his steps leading back to the shadowy world of crime, crossing those of Gian Maria Volonté's fugitive Vogel and Yves Montand's alcoholic ex-cop Jansen.

Planning to pull off an elaborate Parisian jewel heist in Place Vendôme, the trio find themselves pursued by André Bourvil’s relentless inspector Mattei, and fate seals their destinies…

From such barebones, Melville has fashioned a crime film of rare and substantial depth. Le Cercle Rouge has a notable lack of exposition, not much in terms of conventional character development, sparse dialogue and long takes, and yet it is never anything less than enthralling. Drawing on the iconography of classic American gangster films, and the codes of samurai movies, it takes the emptiness at the heart of the former and the latter’s sense of fatalism and refines it into an existentialist vision of the world - and man’s place in it.

The centrepiece may appear to be the heist scene – a virtuoso wordless 25 minutes that recalls a similar scene in Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955) - but the first meeting between Vogel and Corey sticks in the mind as more representative of the enigmatic, fatalistic mood of the film. On the run in the countryside, Vogel hides in the trunk of Corey's car. Corey sees him do this, but we don't know he does. He drives into a muddy field, gets out of his car, stands away from it, and tells the man in the trunk he can get out. The man does, holding a gun that Corey must have known he would find in the trunk. When asked why he would take such a risk, Corey passes Vogel his prison release form. They regard each other, face to face in the muddy field, each man recognising his criminal counterpart, and perhaps a specific set of ethics, a moral code that unites them. It’s a moment of connection, but it’s also much more than this. A clear note of tension comes into the scene; Vogel fumbles and drops the lighter tossed to him, a rare flicker of apprehension appears in the eyes of the usually inscrutable Corey. It resembles a Mexican stand-off with its combination of side-on and head-on shots (a reminder that the Stetson-wearing Melville was as obsessed with the western genre as much as he was film noir), but its tension is more psychological than anything else. In a film of such reticence, it stands out in its intimacy. What does each man see at this moment? The hand of fate that has brought the two men together and now unbreakably unites them; a spiritual doppelganger; the personification of a mutually assured doom? Or is it something else entirely? Even if such analyses are incorrect, or at least not what Melville intended, it would be in keeping with the film’s fatalistic outlook that the two men recognise these elements but embrace their fate anyway. It’s a wonderful, incredibly enigmatic moment that also shows Volonté and Delon at their intuitive best.

The oblique nature of that scene, whatever its meaning, is indicative of Melville’s aesthetic of uncertainty. It is often impossible to tell what a character is really thinking at any given moment. Melville often leads us into thinking that we may know more than the characters, only to reveal that, in fact, we know less – or if not less, then at least different things. The only certainty we can be sure of is that the characters will finally come together in the red circle of the title and, this being a Melville film, that red inevitably represents blood.

Melville’s world is typified by solitude and betrayal, but Le Cercle Rouge also includes a focus on a friendship that is both redeeming and moving. Both Vogel and Jansen return to aid Corey when he is caught in a sting by the police. That the heist is motivated by more than just mercenary concerns is shown when Jansen chooses to forego his share of the heist, recognising how it has allowed him to regain his self-respect and a way out of his alcoholic hell. The relationship between the three men and their code of ethics would seem to argue against the chief of internal affair’s maxim that all men inevitably change for the worse. It’s certainly a relative morality, but in a world in which even Mattei is not beyond using blackmail and coercion to achieve his aims (and may even have the suicide of a young boy on his conscience), it is a significant one.

There’s a melancholy at the heart of this movie, an aspect of Melville’s cinema rarely remarked upon, but undeniably present here. It’s there in the washed-out, wintry hues of Henri Decaë’s cinematography, in the shots of deserted dawn and night-time streets, in the way its protagonists clasp so tightly to conceal their emotions lest they betray themselves... It reveals Melville’s monumental objectivity as not indifference, but sadness. His art is resigned to its inability to transform a character’s fate, just as powerless as the actions of his protagonists and their codes of right behaviour. It gives the film an emotional depth not often found within the genre.

As meticulously and painstakingly staged as the jewel heist at its centre, the movie is filled with brilliant blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments. Some are plot related (Corey noticing Vogel slip into the boot of his car - played so subtly you only notice it on a second viewing); others relate to the film’s aesthetic (one of the most exquisite curls of cigarette smoke ever committed to celluloid as Corey talks to Mattei in the nightclub); and others are typically nouvelle vague moments of self-reflexivity (the initials of the film’s director emblazoned on the soft bullet used to disable the jewellery store’s security system). But it’s the overall tone of Le Cercle Rouge that stays with you - a bleak existential statement that, like classical tragedy, attains its compelling power from the sight of men pitting themselves against the immovable forces of fate.

Aided by Éric de Marsan’s percussive jazzy soundtrack and immaculately restrained performances from its cast, Le Cercle Rouge is as cool as they come, but it also has depth, heart and soul to go with it. Unmissable. GJK

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