Who acts in films? In one sense, this is a silly question. The actors act, by definition. Whether on stage, in television, or on the silver screen, we look to the actors to portray the roles. We praise them when they disappear into those roles in engaging and fascinating ways. We criticize them when they seem to obtrude in a manner detrimental to the narrative.
Of course, we realize that an actor’s portrayal is not entirely of her own creation (although we often forget or ignore this realization). The director leads the actor toward certain insights, certain behaviors, the emphasis on certain traits of the character portrayed. Some directors are reputed to take a heavier hand than others.
Jean-Paul Belmondo carried a kind of quiet assurance and aloof mystique to nearly all of his roles; he didn’t so much disappear into the roles as he brought out similarities between his own persona and the characters he embodied. And yet, in Léon Morin, Priest (1961), director Jean-Pierre Melville was able to exploit Belmondo’s preternatural reticence toward an unexpected end, creating a figure of moral and religious calm that somehow fit Belmondo perfectly and yet was never to be seen on screen by him in the same way again. This directorial input is true of theater, television, and film.
The latter two media, however, have an element missing from typical theater: the camera. We often laud actors, like Meryl Streep or Orson Welles, who are able to act in tandem with the camera—not exactly “playing” to the camera in an ingratiating manner but rather creating a gently tense counterpoint with the camera’s gaze, knowing what to reveal and when to reveal it, knowing what to obscure and how to obscure it.
The camera, however, allows for a split subjectivity to enter into the acting. No longer is it simply the actor that provides movement or emphasis, but rather the camera has the ability to move in its own right, to emphasize (through panning, close-ups, edits, etc.) moments independently of what the actor does. Thus, the director and the director of photography (and perhaps others as well) enter into the business of acting alongside or in counterpoint with the actor.
In television (at least until the new “golden age of television” emerged in the early 2000s), the camera tends to restrict itself to certain clichéd shots and conventions. Sitcoms tend to be one- or three-camera affairs with fairly stock approaches to filming. Certain areas of the set are, of course, off limits (because showing them would reveal that this is a set and not a living room), leading to some rather preposterous and predictable blocking of scenes.
A notable example is the family dining room table where no one sits with their back to the camera, thus leaving one entire length of the table unoccupied. Any genre of television has its characteristic camera shots: the lachrymose or sentimental lingering close-ups of dramas and soap operas, the cutaway after a laugh of the family sitcom, the swift pullback of the camera from an explosion in action shows.
Films, especially those created with what we might term a strong director (one who leaves an indelible personal stamp), often feature a more actorly camera. Think of the emphasis on frontality in the films of Yasujirô Ozu. Most directors avoid direct address of the camera aside from comic asides such as those that populate Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). Having a character stare directly into the eyes of the viewer tends to break the fourth wall in a way that disrupts and derails the narrative flow of a film.
Yet in Ozu, particularly in a film such as Tokyo Twilight (1957), the dialogue scenes are choreographed so that the actors reverse the camera’s gaze, forcing the viewer into the role of witness to the confessions of the characters. This imbues the figures with an auratic presence that closely resembles the effect of Byzantine icons, occupying a liminal space between our world and the otherworldly, between the mundane and the spiritual. It isn’t that the actors themselves don’t participate in the creation of this effect; but the determining factor is the camera’s contribution to the acting.
The films of Alfred Hitchcock create a very different approach to the actorly camera. Take, for instance, Saboteur (1942)—in particular, the scene in which the protagonist attempts to rescue a man from falling from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. The protagonist grabs the man’s sleeve. The camera then shifts to reveal what the protagonist cannot see and the distressed man seems not to notice: the seams of the man’s sleeve are pulling apart; the man will soon plunge to his death.
The camera often operates in this manner in Hitchcock. It reveals what the characters cannot know or cannot see. The camera becomes not simply a surrogate for the viewer but an active participant in the unveiling of actions and the meanings behind them. The camera in Ozu maintains distance to vouchsafe aura; the camera in Hitchcock provides a proximity that uncovers layers of reality unavailable to the characters within the narrative.
Some of the finest examples of the actorly camera can be found in the work of Jean-Pierre Melville. In Melville, the camera doesn’t merely assist in the acting duties but rather becomes a quasi-character in its own right, exerting its presence in the unfolding of the narrative and unmistakably imprinting that narrative with a significance that surpasses any meaning that can be attributed to the actions and dispositions of the characters themselves.
Melville, like Ozu, is not only comfortable with silence but insists upon it as a means of the production of significance. The characteristic Melville scene arises from a kind of triangulation among what is not said (an eloquent absence or lack), the actions that signify in place of words (a superfluity of possible meanings and potential outcomes), and the movements of the camera that, more than simply articulating significance, generate meaning through participation. This hints toward Melville’s crucial philosophical insight, articulated not through interviews but through his dynamic mise-en-scène. Teasing out that insight requires a bit of unpacking.
In Melville, no object has meaning in its own right; nothing has meaning on its own. Object in this sense encompasses anything (material or immaterial) that we might encounter or with which we might engage: including criminal schemes, facial expressions, motives, emotions, friendships, etc. Melville’s final film, Un flic (1972), makes the fact that the object is devoid of intrinsic meaning clear.
The plot revolves around a rather involved heist that begins with a bank robbery. The thief, Simon (Richard Crenna), owns a successful nightclub. He has no need for more money (or at least none that is revealed); his motive is never discussed. Moreover, Simon himself seems to accord the money very little value. A member of his crew is wounded by gunshot during the robbery. As they endeavor to load the wounded man and the money into the car, Simon instructs another robber to leave one of the large bags of stolen loot behind. Again, no real explanation is forthcoming. The alarm has sounded but there is no sign yet of a police presence, no hint of police sirens, and leaving the bag behind does rather little to speed up their departure.
Riccardo Cucciolla as Paul Weber, Richard Crenna as Simon, and Michael Conrad as Louis Costa [© Courtesy Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal / IMDB]
More to the point, the money was not even an end unto itself. Simon plans to use it as a stepping stone toward another, more complicated, heist: robbing another criminal of a large stash of heroin that is being transported by train. The two material objects of desire for Simon—the money and the heroin—are fungible. Their reason for being is to be exchanged. The money is exchanged for the means to gain access to the heroin; the heroin is to be exchanged for more money.
The circle can continue on indefinitely, without surcease, without eventuation into something worthwhile, some end in itself. The meaning comes from the point of exchange, which is to say that the meaning is indefinitely deferred. The meaning of the bank robbery was in preparation for the heroin heist. The meaning of the heroin heist was to sell the drugs for money. Needless to say, that money’s meaning must have equally been bound up in something else not yet revealed by the film’s end.
Thus, meaning in Melville can never be concrete. It is bound up in the logic of the deferral involved in the endless potentiality of exchange. Meaning accrues through movement and the anticipation of a conclusion that never arrives and by definition cannot arrive. Meaning, therefore, is entirely relational.
Nothing is meaningful in itself, but only in the manner in which it relates to something else. But even that relational meaning is not simply an enduring vector connecting two oppositional nodes. Rather, the various objects of the Melville film are in constant movement. The relations that arise among them involve their potentialities as much as their current manifestations, what they might do as much as what they appear to be at the moment. The money only matters insofar as it has the potential for doing something else—producing access to the heroin. The heroin only matters insofar as it has the potential for producing more money. And so it goes.
The same logic applies to the characters who populate Melville’s films. In Un flic there are several scenes that involve two or all three of the film’s main characters: Simon, his policeman friend Coleman (Alain Delon), and his girlfriend Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), who is having an affair with Coleman. These scenes are suffused with the resounding silence for which Melville is celebrated. Coleman plays a piano in Simon’s nightclub; Cathy exits the office and listens. We see Coleman’s face up close as he loses himself in his increasingly fluid performance. We see Cathy’s face up close as it registers a variety of expressions—none of them entirely legible. Is she happy to see him or worried about his presence? Is she charmed or distracted or even bored by his playing?
Catherine Deneuve as Cathy and Alain Delon as Commissaire Edouard Coleman [© Courtesy Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal / IMDB]
The camera obsesses over these ambiguous expressions, imbuing them with a heightened meaning they would not have without its insistent framing. The camera doesn’t articulate the significance of her glances, it renders them ever more ineffable. But in doing so it draws the viewer further in to the endless pursuit of meaning. More to the point, the peculiar invasiveness of the camera in its refusal to clarify demonstrates that meaning is not simply deferred but depends upon deferral. Meaning, for Melville, is itself intrinsically fungible. It is a system of exchange awaiting a payout that never comes insofar as its arrival would lay waste to the circulation of signs on which meaning depends.
Within this system of deferred meaning, the camera is paramount. The movements of the camera produce the circulation of meaning. This is an important point and easily overlooked or misunderstood. Owing to his tendency to film action sequences (in Un flic this means the two robberies) in what appears to be “real time”, one might readily assume that Melville employs the camera as a measure of time.
Take, for instance, the heroin heist. Simon and his co-conspirators relieve the mark of his heroin by lowering Simon onto the train, descending via a rope from a helicopter. Simon then cleans the dust and debris from his face and changes into a dressing gown in order to appear to be merely another passenger. He breaks into the room, chloroforms the drug runner, changes back into the overalls he wore previously… The details of the heist don’t matter. In fact, they specifically don’t matter in the sense that they are insignificant and, paradoxically, that is precisely why Melville documents each moment of the heist in such excruciating detail.
The point of camera movement in Melville is not to measure time but rather to project it, to construct time. Time here is not an empty, spatialized ticking of the clock. Rather, time is a dynamic flux, what Henri Bergson refers to as the “Open”, a whole that is not, on any level, static or complete. Despite the documentary character of the heist scene, the outcome of events is not foreclosed, nor is the point of the scene to heighten suspense, to emphasize the “up-for-grabs” nature of the scheme. Rather, the camera constructs time as the production of meaning.
It does this by lingering over details that hardly matter (which is to say nearly all of the details of the heist). We might be tempted to laugh at the obvious use of a model helicopter and a model train in this scene. They are so obviously toys that the moment borders on something we might find in an Ed Wood film. The train might as well have “Tonka” written on its side. What is worse, the focus on that toy helicopter endures. Melville doesn’t simply use the model to establish the means of getting Simon on the train. We remain with the helicopter for a protracted period of time.
Similarly, once he is inside the train, we see the entire process of Simon’s undressing and costuming himself in a nightgown. We watch him waiting for another man to leave the bathroom and return down the hall to his room. He smokes a cigarette and we witness each inhale and subsequent exhale. Again, we might assume that Melville’s point here is to force us to bear witness to the excruciating passing of time, to heighten the sense of danger. And yet, this doesn’t seem to me to be the effect of this or other similar sequences in the film. Time isn’t measured here; it is constructed. The superfluity of detail isn’t documentarian. Time as the dynamic force Melville reveals it to be is not merely an accumulation of events and acts; it is a flowing presence that eludes our attempts to reduce it to the conceptual, to make it known.
The movements of the camera in Melville’s works attempt to overcome one of the most inscrutable divides in existence: what is often summarized in philosophy as the divide between realism and idealism but that can just as easily be summarized by asking how we get from external movements to an internal understanding of the meaning behind those movements. We see Simon in the bathroom of a moving train. He removes a tool from within his jacket. He inserts the tool into a cabinet beneath the sink in order to remove the nightgown he will use as a disguise. Strictly speaking, we do not see the “in order to”. We assume it; we infer it.
Yet in another sense, the “in order to” is bound up in the perception insofar as perception is already an interpretation of the perceived. We don’t just see a tool inserted, we see it inserted with a purpose; it hardly strikes us as accidental or motiveless. But the assertion of motive is not entirely reserved for the viewer as an outside judgment. Motives and meaning seem to be bound up in the movements of the camera; these movements construct that meaning not simply by drawing attention to the external movements (the movements of the actors, for instance) that are, in some sense, “already there”, but rather by manufacturing meaning through its own subjectivity.
That subjectivity is not a proxy for the subjectivity of the viewer. It is something else altogether. The camera in Melville’s films is actorly in precisely this sense: it doesn’t provide an objective viewpoint from which the viewer makes judgments. It is the act of judging as an internal inscription within the film itself. Melville succeeds not because he produces a “thinking man’s film” but rather because he demonstrates that film, in some very real manner, is capable of doing its own thinking.
Kino Lorber has released a new edition of Melville’s Un flic. It includes an illuminating audio commentary by historian Samm Deighan; interviews with Alain Delon’s brother, Jean Francois, and Florence Gabin, the daughter of famed actor and Melville collaborator Jean Gabin; and a documentary titled In the Mood for Melville.