Eric Breitbart’s critical essay on the French filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Melville, originally appeared in NER 27.3:
In my opinion cinema isn’t an art form because you can’t reread things, scratch them out and do them over again in the hope of approaching perfection. What makes a film different from a painting, a symphony, or a book is the fact that a release print is only a sketch. —J. P. Melville
In the early 1960s, Melville was often identified as the “father of the New Wave” (though he himself often referred to Godard, Truffaut, & Co. as his stepchildren rather than his children); this identification had more to do with his independence from the establishment than with any stylistic affinities, but his relationship with the younger filmmakers began to sour when he argued against government subsidies and a special category for art films, insisting that it was the director’s duty to find a way of bringing large audiences into the theaters without compromising his principles. In a way, it was a position that Melville could afford to take because he was his own producer and had his own studio. If necessary, he could go downstairs in the evening and build his own sets. Early in his career, when he was accused of being an “amateur” because he didn’t have a union card, Melville responded that he was, in fact, an “ultra-professional,” capable of doing everything from scriptwriting to art direction.
He always took himself absolutely seriously and was known as a hard taskmaster who often fought with his actors to get what he wanted; he was also extremely loyal to the few longtime crew members he respected. His personal life was uneventful; he had a long-term, childless marriage, and lived quietly with his wife and three cats. When asked about his work habits, he once told an interviewer:“I believe that to be a film director is extremely tiring if you take it seriously. You can work in a relaxed manner and I know a number of my young colleagues who do. As for me, twenty-four hours before the first shot I call for the doctor because I am not well at all. I have heart palpitations and feel sick during the whole first day of production. I try not to show it, but I have such anxiety that as soon as the day is over I go straight to bed.”