Friday, June 26, 2009

Franscope and American Color

One tradition we've sadly lost: the "first film in color." That second debut that usually marked the moment a director became more commercially viable (though nowadays we have a new tradition, exclusive to older filmmakers--the "first film on video"--that usually marks the beginning of a looser, less commercially-minded period). As The Red Desert, as in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, so in L’Aîné des Ferchaux (sometimes called Magnet of Doom in English), Jean-Pierre Melville's first film in color, a film set largely (and largely unknown) in America. Melville's other color films are designed in this sort of funeral parlor hue that gives everything a sense of twilight. A haze, a prolonged decay that permeates the image and brings out the green in a person's skin.

The images all have exclamation points, as if Melville's thinking "America! New York!" The excited way street signs and motels are framed gives it a sort of home movie quality: a little movie and a big one, at the same time. That sort of mad love for American culture only a foreigner (usually a Frenchman) can have, the kind that leads Jean-Paul Belmondo, in the scene above, to punch out two GIs for calling Frank Sinatra a "wop." Melville is a man of symbols, but they tend to be symbols of a fairly minute nature: clothing, cars, the way objects (cigarettes, pistols, hats) are held and handled. L’Aîné des Ferchaux seems to be working on the largest level of any Melville movie--the symbols it works with are fairly large: cities, popular references, thousands of dollar bills raining down into a canyon. The landscape shots look like sketches for the Western Melville always hoped to make; the project was never realized, but with L’Aîné des Ferchaux we get little glimpses of, like in the sequence where Belmondo kisses a beautiful hitch-hiker against the backdrop of a stern blue sky and imposing rocks, a river rushing along nearby.

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