Wednesday 16 February 2011

Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

Le Cercle Rouge is a heist movie, made by French director Jean-Pierre Melville in 1970.  It's fabulous, as are all the films of his that I've seen.  Melville began making crime movies in the 1950s and from the outset was as much interested in the iconography of crime and gangsters as he was in the story.  By 1970 he had more or less stripped the story back to its bare bones, leaving recognisable elements in an almost abstract setting.  In Le Cercle Rouge we learn almost nothing about the criminals, no attempt is made to explain or justify what they do and no moral position is taken.  In Melville's world men simply do what they do.

The film begins with a quote attributed to Buddha but apparently an inventon of Melville himself.  It says:

'When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.'

So this is about fate, or the impossibility of escaping one's fate.  The quote is reinforced throughout the film via a subtle but constant series of visual reminders.  For instance, the opening sequence sees Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) being escorted on to a train by Commissioner Mattei, who is presumably taking him to jail.  Trains have long been used as signifiers of an inescapable fate because they represent a defined path from which you can't divert: in Zola's 'La Bête Humaine' for example and also in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, among many other films.

Even when he managers to get off the train, Vogel finds himself trapped by his environment:

Similarly, Alain Delon's characater Corey starts the film in jail but finds the outside world to be just as restrictive:

This visual motif of vertical lines is there throughout the film, and not always as obviously as the two examples above.  It's there in the billiard hall for instance:

And in Jansen's (Yves Montand) hyper-stylised room:

The heist sequence itself, at a jewellery store in the Place Vendôme, is a masterpiece.  Like I said before, Melville has made an almost abstract film so the heist is carried out in silence, except for one word, it lasts almost half an hour and is absolutely rivetting.  You're almost invited to see the criminals carrying out their work as a form of self-expression.

Abstract heisting
Imagine a modern action movie having a silent sequence that long.  Speaking of which, I understand a remake is planned, with Orlando Bloom in the Alain Delon role and also starring Liam Neeson who, by my reckoning hasn't made a good film in nearly 20 years.  It might be good, it might even be very good, but I can promise you it won't be as good as the original.  Both Volonté (who played sweaty villains in two of the Eastwood / Leone westerns) and Delon are genuine icons of European cinema and Meville was, within his self-imposed limitations, approaching genius.

You can see the trailer here:

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