By this time, we are on familiar territory – to be a character in a Jean-Pierre Melville film is to breathe fatalism. The world he projects onto the screen is in no way meant to be realistic, but rather exists to strike a mood within a comfortable genre, namely the gangster film made popular in America. Noir has been fertile soil indeed for cinema, and so Melville has cultivated a body of work that has stood the test of time for the fearless invention and subtle depth found within. His understanding of the world is that one’s identity and determination are all too easily swept up, carried along by forces beyond our control; one’s actions may have an imagined impact on the course of things, but in the end we all end up downriver. Those inclined to simple terms would label this fate, though that would imply a design in lieu of an elegant chaos. A Melville protagonist is world-weary and nearing the end of their rope, and when they find their crisp trenchcoats perforated, spilling their last into a Parisian gutter, their faces read frustration, but never supplies. As his concern has primarily been that of life’s ever downward trajectory, there is no better subject to illustrate this view than the criminal on the run as elevated to a tragic figure.
Le Deuxieme Souffle represented a crossroads in Melville’s career, as his works moved toward the more philosophical. Like Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, existentialist questions remain in the air as shadowy figures went about their business. Lino Ventura plays Gustave Minda, a skilled murderer who has escaped a life prison sentence and becomes involved in that one last score before disappearing into the wilderness. By that description, you already know it ends in tears. As suggested by the title, Gustave has his ‘Second Wind’, his second chance at life on his own terms. This, as all things, must end. In the interim, he must find a way through the gauntlet of betrayal by trusted friends and the attentions of clever detectives, pushing ever onward in that universally doomed struggle to survive. The film opens with this quote:
“A man is given but one right at birth: to choose his own death. But if he chooses because he’s weary of life, then his entire existence has been without meaning.”
The film explores the implications of this statement, and the ethical impact of Gustave, his accomplices, the cops they fight against as they make their choices. The tragedy central to that quote is there is often little choice to make, and the characters will go through the motions, however adept they may be. There is no romanticism about life underground – the decision to steal or commit murder in order to secure one’s future carries the full moral weight one would expect.
Philosophy aside, Souffle contains those essential touches common to the director’s insane devotion to detail. Melville’s fetishism is well known, and his admiration for the underworld translated into a passion for their costuming, mannerisms, cars, weaponry, and even wallpaper. He designed most of these himself prior to and during shooting. Above all his perfectionism struck the cinematography, which captured indelible images that served at the very least to remind the viewer that there are larger questions afoot. In one striking sequence, the team silently prepares for an ambush. As the camera pans right to left (psychologically weak), a stunning vista of mountain roads is revealed, ending in a bare outcropping that terminates in a bed of clouds. Approaching oblivion has never been so beautifully shot. One character stares at the ground as ants go about their business. The camera pulls away to view the team in much the same objectivity, perhaps denying any true meaning to their work and their struggle for survival. The stark photography and spare technique makes for a harsh and uncompromising film. This is fair enough, given the similarly harsh world these figures occupy.
Lino Ventura creates another memorable character in Gustave, torn between the life of crime that is drowning him, and the moral code that forces him to make impossible choices. Paul Meurisse plays the brilliant and assertive Inspector Blot, whose character is established early in the film. After a murder is committed, he invades a crime scene and provides the story, the players, their motives and alibis with hardly a word from the witnesses. This would give the impression of a lazy cop, except that he drops the hint that he is looking for something far more important than the immediate crime, and their cooperation would be silently appreciated. He has an intuition about his quarry, partly from his fascination with their lives – another time and another place, he would be planning jobs with the best of them. As he notes to one criminal he is shadowing, “Long live the crooks.” Like the other inhabitants of this world, he plays his part in the eternal dance between the forces of law and disorder, albeit with cool efficiency. This shrewdness becomes almost diabolical as the labyrinthine plot reaches its astounding crescendo as Gustave’s fate is sealed.
Le Deuxieme Souffle is a precise and cool explosion of minimalist achievement, and a fascinating work that can be regarded with the best of French cinema (and by extension world cinema). Films made with such restraint lend themselves to endlessly repeated viewings as they hold their cards almost too close to the vest. Though Souffle is certainly entertaining from a mechanical point of view, the ideas within are wonderfully open to interpretation, and trusts the viewers to form their own opinion. Like Bob Le Flambeur and Le Cercle Rouge’s alcoholic cop, Gustave is a man who is closer to the end than the beginning, and must play his part, such as it is. These musings on the point of struggle and the ethical considerations of inflicting suffering on others in order to ensure one’s survival are universal themes that the film does not attempt to answer.