Alain Resnais and MÉLO

From the Chicago Reader (April 15, 1988). — J.R.

Directed by Alain Resnais
Written by Henry Bernstein
With André Dussollier, Sabine Azema, Pierre Arditi,
and Fanny Ardant

The exquisite art of MÉLO, like the art of Alain Resnais in general, bears a certain resemblance to sculpture: it needs to be seen from several different vantage points if one is to fully appreciate its shapeliness and the powerful multiplicity of its meanings. The following selection of vantage points can’t pretend to be exhaustive; at best, it presents only a few starting points for sounding the bottomless depths of this deceptively simple movie. The first six points are provided by the film’s title and the names listed in the heading above. The last four — theater, mise en scène, symmetry, and mystery — offer more general and abstract perspectives.

1. MÉLO.
The title is an abbreviation for mélodrame or melodrama, which derive from the Greek word melos, music, and the French word drame, drama. What do we usually mean by melodrama? “Sensational dramatic piece with violent appeals to emotions” and “extravagantly theatrical play in which action and plot predominate over characterization” are two relevant dictionary definitions, among others. The earlier meaning is drama with music.

All three of the major characters in MÉLO are musicians, and many of the film’s most intense passages occur when they are either performing music (usually together) or recollecting earlier performances. Resnais has consciously extended this principle by “scoring” and “conducting” the dialogue as if it were itself music. The two longest and most mesmerizing cadenzas in the film are monologues contained in single shots, accompanied by nearly continuous camera movement and subtle lighting changes.

In the first, near the beginning, Marcel Blanc (André Dussollier) recounts to his old music-conservatory chum Pierre Belcroix (Pierre Arditi) and Pierre’s wife Romaine (Sabine Azema) a story that seeks to explain why years ago he gave up hoping for a love of total trust. On tour in Havana with his mistress Hélène, he played Bach’s Third Violin Sonata at a concert, addressing it and his emotions directly to her in the front row — only to discover her exchanging glances with a stranger several seats away, a gesture that she lied about later when he questioned her about it.

In the second cadenza, near the end, a few years after the suicide of Romaine — who began a brief, secret affair with Marcel the day after he delivered the above-mentioned monologue — her husband and Marcel’s friend, Pierre, recites to Marcel by heart the letter that she wrote to him before drowning herself in the Seine.

The musicality of both of these monologues is intensified by very slow camera movements — beginning in both cases with Pierre and ending on Marcel — and by changes in lighting that occur along the way, changes that have no realistic causes but serve dramatic ends. The first camera movement drifts from left to right behind Pierre and Romaine — who (like the camera) are facing Marcel at the other end of a table — before moving into a close-up of Marcel. The successive configurations on the screen during this remarkable lengthy take are as follows: Marcel-Pierre-Romaine; Pierre-Marcel-Romaine; Romaine-Marcel; and Marcel alone. This series is a “musical” prefiguration, as it were, of the drama as a whole as seen from Marcel’s viewpoint; the story begins with Marcel set apart from the married couple, continues with Marcel intervening between them, and then focuses on Romaine and Marcel together, before concluding with Marcel alone. In the second cadenza, while Romaine’s suicide letter is being recited by Pierre, the camera traverses the increasingly dark stretch of empty space between Pierre and Marcel, until it finally arrives at Marcel’s tear-stained face. The darkness “stands in” for the missing Romaine.

The importance of music is apparent in  MÉLO before a single note is played or a single word is spoken. The film opens with a stylish art deco theater program for Henry Bernstein’s play Mélo as it would have been presented in Paris when the play opened on 11 March 1929, except that the names and oval portraits of the actors and director — whom we see as the pages are slowly turned, while we hear the off-screen murmur of an opening-night audience — are those of the film MÉLO.

Then, after we read on the last page, “9:30 P.M., June 1926, in Montrouge on the outskirts of Paris,” we see a painting of a red theater curtain while we hear the traditional raps against the floor which begin a French stage performance, and there is a lap dissolve to Pierre knocking out his pipe in a continuation of the same raps—in the backyard of his house with Marcel and Romaine at the end of a pleasant meal. The percussive sound of this knocking succinctly prepares us for the musicality of the dialogue, and the dialogue about music.

2. Alain Resnais.

Barring only the octogenarian Robert Bresson, who may never shoot again, Resnais is incontestably the greatest living French filmmaker, and quite possibly the French director who has been most frequently and unjustly maligned in this country. Despite the fact that he has substantially revised his form and style for each of his eleven features to date, working with a total of eight separate writers, his films share an emotional purity, a visual elegance, and a rhythmic grace that together constitute a recognizable signature. And his central preoccupations — memory, loss, love, death, and desire — have remained more or less constant. The problems he has posed for American aesthetes appear to have been equally constant.

The standard (and unwarranted) objection to Resnais in this country — that he’s all form and no content, or, alternately, all technique and no feeling — can be heard from many of his alleged defenders as well as many of his overt attackers. “Resnais knows all about beauty,” Susan Sontag conceded at the end of her 1963 review of MURIEL, his third feature. “But his films lack tonicity and vigor, directness of address. They are cautious, somehow, overburdened and synthetic. They do not go to the end, either of the idea or of the emotion which inspires them, which all great art must do.”

Twenty-five years later, although one can certainly single out Resnais features that are flawed (JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME, L’AMOUR À MORT) or relatively minor (STAVISKY, LA VIE EST UN ROMAN) or both (LA GUERRE EST FINIE), only two of Sontag’s complaints seem to hold up: Resnais’ films are all synthetic, and they lack directness of address. The same could be said for the collected fiction of Henry James, William Faulkner, and Jorge Luis Borges.

Actually, I think what bothers many American critics about Resnais is that he scares and confuses them:  LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD has got to be one of the scariest and most confusing movies ever made, and many have never forgiven Resnais (and Alain Robbe-Grillet, his scriptwriter) for the radical upset it caused here in the early 1960s. The fact that Resnais tells stories and experiments with form expels him from the avant-garde and mainstream alike. He’s an avid fan of “Dick Tracy” and Stephen Sondheim, but intimidated Americans have wrongly made him out to be some forbidding kind of French intellectual. Maybe what they can’t stand is his delicacy: “Even at its best,” writes a smirking capsule writer in The New Yorker, “MÉLO isn’t much more than a classy dinner-theatre production — without the dinner.” The pregnant pause in that leaden one-liner, with its scantily covered guffaw showing through, is the opposite of the finesse that Resnais brings to his smallest gestures as a director. But French artists who can be funny without farting are not likely to make it onto videocassette, and classy dinner-theater with the dinner (e.g., MY DINNER WITH ANDRÉ) is more in line with The New Yorker‘s taste.

Other confusions for critics: Resnais is an intensely personal director who never writes his own scripts, although his role as an instigator and editor of scripts has never been properly evaluated. (MÉLO is the only feature he’s filmed that was not written expressly for him — playwright Henry Bernstein died in 1953 — and although Resnais modestly takes no script credit, the movie runs for about an hour less than the original play.) As a post-Surrealist, Resnais has a certain affinity with writers who launch certain works for the sake of taking on particular challenges. Much as Georges Perec wrote  La disparition in order to prove that he could write a novel without using the letter e, Resnais chose to film Mélo partially to prove that a supposedly dated and unproducible playwright, one who was once all the rage and whom Resnais loved as a teenager, could be brought back to life again.

Actually, the precise origins of this film are a little more complex — and arbitrary — than that. For some time, Resnais had been working with the Czech novelist Milan Kundera on a contemporary script that would be relatively expensive to produce. Not wanting to remain inactive while the money was being raised, he started to look around for another project. Fanny Ardant suggested doing a play, and added, “You’re always talking about Henry Bernstein” — apparently confusing this name with Leonard Bernstein, whose theories about musical structure fascinated Resnais. In short, what transpired was a kind of Surrealist accident, in which the conjunction of the title Mélo with the name Leonard Bernstein may have helped to suggest certain aspects of Resnais’ approach to the material. (This form of creative indirection may be what confuses some American critics the most. But the method of trusting one’s unconscious and arriving at the personal through indirection has had many distinguished literary precedents, from Madame Bovary to Impressions of Africa to Finnegans Wake.)

3. Henry Bernstein (1876–1953).

Among many other things, MÉLO is a profound history lesson, and part of the lesson it imparts involves the completely eclipsed reputation of the play’s author. Thirty of his plays opened in Paris between 1900 and 1952, over half of them at Bernstein’s own theater, and according to critic Claude Beylie, virtually none of them except for the last two was a flop. Yet his work has suffered an almost total blackout in the thirty-five years since his death. (Resnais, who was only seven when Mélo opened in 1929 — with Charles Boyer as Marcel and Gaby Morlay as Romaine — never saw the original production, which ran for some five hundred performances, but he attended ten of Bernstein’s subsequent plays over the years and read most of the others.)

Perhaps the most dated aspect of Bernstein’s work for contemporary French tastes can be summed up in one word: psychology. As Resnais has pointed out, the three leading characters in MÉLO are all neurotics; and the compulsive rhythms and obsessional themes in their dialogue might be described as the point at which Bernstein’s fascination with their psychology meets Resnais’ interest in music. In the 1929 theater program for Mélo, Bernstein wrote that he regarded the play as “the most complete expression of my thought and sensibility” and “a synthesis of all the themes that I have become attentive to”; the role played by music in sublimating (as much as expressing) the extreme emotions of the characters and their repressed psychological states surely has a lot to do with this synthesis.

4. André Dussollier (Marcel).

Expressing and exposing contradictory layers in the same character seems to be a specialty for this remarkable actor. It may not be evident in his film debut as a hapless and naive sociologist in Truffaut’s SUCH A GORGEOUS KID LIKE ME (1973), but it is fully in flower in Rohmer’s LE BEAU MARIAGE (1982), where he plays an attractive young lawyer whom the heroine (Béatrice Romand) barely knows but is determined to marry. Dussollier only puts in four appearances in Rohmer’s film, none of them very extended, but the reality and complexity he brings to his simple part are awesome. His performance is at once an impersonation of a conceited yet polite pretty boy, an objective commentary on this type of individual, and a series of mitigating notations on the man that make it impossible to polish him off simply or superficially. Rohmer’s script is deliberately constructed so that we never learn a lot about this character; Dussollier’s uncommon achievement is to take this elusive figure, whom the heroine flagrantly misreads, and suggest volumes without allowing us to arrive at a cozy moral attitude toward him or a “finished” portrait of who he actually is.

In MÉLO, Dussollier’s Marcel Blanc (whose last name is appropriate) is constructed on certain related principles. The character is hardly the same — Marcel is a sensitive musician, not a hotshot lawyer, and although he conveys a similar impression of being a rather glib ladies’ man and bon vivant, his style is a good deal more passive/aggressive. The dramatic curve that leads from the story of his lover’s lie in the first act to his own lie in the third (to Pierre, about his involvement with Romaine) never gives us a fully rounded character to grasp, and Dussollier again uses this limitation to his fullest advantage. Once again, we have to collaborate with him in order to construct his character, and part of Dussollier’s brilliance is his capacity to ensure that we don’t jump to any easy conclusions as we apply the finishing touches.

5. Sabine Azema (Romaine).

The giddy affectations of Romaine, nicknamed Maniche by Pierre, constitute a stumbling block for some viewers of  MÉLO, because the character as presented by the actress Sabine Azema is not always easy to take. But Romaine, the hub of an adulterous love triangle who is eventually driven batty by her devotion to Pierre and passion for Marcel, is a character defined by such emotional extremes that it would probably be a betrayal of the material for any actress to play her unabrasively. The despair and confusion that lead her to try poisoning Pierre before she finally drowns herself instead is at the heart of what makes this play both powerful in its own terms and profoundly unfashionable in ours.

The “cuteness” of Romaine, which Azema seizes and plays to the hilt, is one of the characteristics that a conventional contemporary adaptation would probably minimize. But Resnais and Azema seem interested in the way that the character is buffeted back and forth between the men like a giggling and decorative beanbag; making her something of a Freudian hysteric to boot, the film places her emotional maelstrom at the center of its focus, and Azema’s frenetic performance is precisely what places the spectator in an emotional bind: one is forced to become either emotionally implicated in her turmoil, as audiences of the original stage production presumably were, or to reject the experience entirely. The most common form of this rejection is, of course, laughter—a sure sign of emotional fear or panic, triggered in this case by Resnais’ absolute refusal to suggest any overtones of nostalgia or camp (which forces some spectators to import or manufacture their own). In a way, this scariness is the reverse of the scariness of MARIENBAD, where nostalgia and camp of various kinds give the film’s deadpan surface a decidedly macabre edge. But as MÉLO pungently demonstrates, facing decisions in the past without the placebos of simplification is potentially just as terrifying to an audience as confronting decisions in the present.

6. Pierre Arditi (Pierre) and Fanny Ardant (Christiane).

The quartet of Dussollier, Azema, Arditi, and Ardant appeared in Resnais’ two previous films,  LA VIE EST UN ROMAN and L’AMOUR À MORT — movies whose exposure in the United States has been so limited that the above classification of them as “relatively minor” and “flawed,” respectively, should be regarded as interim judgments at best. (Most of Resnais’ films improve greatly with repeated viewings; after three or four looks at MÉLO over the past year, I feel I’m only beginning to make its acquaintance, but there’s no question that each time it grows considerably.) The fact that Resnais has used these four actors three times in a row, and quite differently each time, can be interpreted two ways: as another example of the arbitrariness of his initial premises, or, conversely, as one aspect of the firmness and confidence of his technique, which partially depends on working with actors whose capacities are well known to him. Considering the extraordinary ensemble acting in MÉLO, which was shot in a little over three weeks, it is worth remarking that this work was preceded by another three weeks of rehearsals.

The casting here has a number of other implications. Arditi and Azema played a married couple as well in the somewhat Bergmanesque L’AMOUR À MORT, but there it was Arditi who died (only momentarily, before coming back to life), and at the beginning of the film rather than toward the end. Ardant’s role in MÉLO, as Christiane — Romaine’s cousin, who eventually marries Pierre after Romaine’s death — is much briefer than her previous roles in Resnais films, but, as Resnais himself has noted, the fact that it’s Ardant tells us in advance that the role is important. For as we discover in her longest scene — a conversation with a priest at the beginning of act three — she is the only character who seems to know everything that’s going on: not only the clandestine affair of Romaine and Marcel (which Pierre later suspects, but never knows about for sure), but also Romaine’s anguished attempt to poison Pierre, which neither Pierre nor Marcel ever learns about (although it’s the most direct cause of her suicide.)

The infantile side of Pierre’s character, impressively caught by Arditi, is contained in Romaine’s pet name for him, Pierrot, just as his pet name for her, Maniche, seems to point to her own infantilism. It is finally their mutual infantilism rather than their shared love of music (which her affair with Marcel complicates) that draws them together, more like siblings in some respects than like man and wife. When Pierre is suffering from her poison (unknowingly) and begs her to join him in playing a Brahms sonata — a piece he used to play with Marcel at the music conservatory, and which they begin to play together again at the play’s final curtain — she refuses, but when he asks her to perform a series of somersaults for him, she happily complies. (Last year, Arditi and Azema both won Césars—the French equivalent of Oscars — for their performances in MÉLO.)

The fact that Romaine is unable to have a child with Pierre while Christiane subsequently can and does (as Romaine predicts) may be related to this infantilism — that is, Romaine becomes the child that she can’t have. Christiane, by contrast, relates to Pierre like a mother, while Marcel’s relation to Romaine is rather like that of a father (their first “date,” in effect, is a “music lesson”). And in the final playing of the Brahms sonata by Marcel and Pierre, it might be said that, emotionally speaking, each of the men has come to represent Romaine for the other.

7. Theater.

It’s hard to know whether Resnais has a developed theory about theater and film — in fact, it’s hard to regard him as a theoretician at all—but in practice, he proceeds in MÉLO as if film and theater were kissing cousins rather than natural enemies or mutually exclusive options. Like Cocteau in LES PARENTS TERRIBLES and Ichikawa in AN ACTOR’S REVENGE, he makes the theatrical cinematic, and the cinematic theatrical. By never letting us forget that we’re watching a play, he allows us to yield the maximum from the fact that we’re watching a movie.

Resnais’ respect for the theatricality of the original is perhaps most apparent in the opening scene, set in Pierre and Romaine’s garden toward the end of their evening with Marcel. Here Resnais rigorously avoids showing us the “fourth wall” — the wall “through” which we would see the action if we were watching a play — and Jacques Saulnier’s lovely set includes all the artificial elements we would expect to find on a stage: twinkling stars, moon, an intricately lit background that offers a theatrically realistic impression of distant buildings in the neighborhood, and so on. And the lengthy takes, long enough at times to recall Hitchcock’s ROPE, heighten the theatrical effect further with their respect for real time.

The theater’s respect for real time, however, is customarily reserved for on-stage rather than off-stage action. Toward the end of this garden scene, for example, Marcel leaves for his car, accompanied by Pierre, and then, offstage and off-screen, discovers that he has forgotten to deliver some roses that he brought for Romaine; he gives the flowers to Pierre, who returns to the garden and presents them to Romaine. Following theatrical convention, these off-stage events transpire much more quickly than they possibly could in real time, and by keeping his camera glued to the garden set, Resnais makes us acutely aware of this discrepancy. Later, in the second act, the minuscule interval that passes between the time Christiane calls for a doctor and the moment he arrives is made even more ludicrously apparent. The play’s status as play is constantly thrown into relief by Resnais’ apparent refusal to “adapt” it; he even focuses on a red theater curtain between acts.

This drawing of our attention to the artificiality of conventions — what the Russian Formalists refer to as “baring the device” — might seem, according to our generally unconscious adoption of those conventions, to be a way of distracting us from the characters and plot. But in practice this isn’t really the case; instead the practice creates a series of different perspectives on the same material—a cubist or sculptural effect that actually allows us more possible points of entry. As a parallel example of this phenomenon, consider Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy — a favorite example of the Russian Formalists, because it “bares the device” at every turn, in every conceivable way, from the numbering of pages and chapters to the functions of the authorial voice. Yet at no point does this diminish the three-dimensionality of its characters and fictional world; if anything, Sterne’s diverse high jinks only reinforce the solidity of Uncle Toby and Shandy Green.

In any case, Resnais’ emphasis on theatrical convention is fairly systematic, but not programmatic: that is, he comes up with a number of ingenious solutions for handling theatrical space without mechanically repeating his procedures. One claustrophobic sequence in a nightclub, for example, shows the action exclusively in a mirror. And while, if memory serves, Pierre and Romaine’s bedroom seems, like their garden, to be shown without a fourth wall, the living room of Marcel’s flat seems to be shown from a greater number of perspectives — so many, in fact, that each new scene set there seems to redefine its space.

8. Mise en scène.

The French word for “direction,” which means literally “placing on the stage,” was decked out with hyphens as “mise-en-scène” by Andrew Sarris in the early 1960s — around the same time that he began writing about “auteur theory” — and has been burdened with mystical connotations ever since. French theorist and filmmaker Alexandre Astruc defined it as “a means of transforming the world into a spectacle given primarily to oneself,” but Sarris went much further: “Dare I come out and say what I think it to be is an élan of the soul?”

The question seems worth bringing up because “mise en scène” is the credit Resnais assigns himself at the beginning of MÉLO, as opposed to the ore modest “réalisation” (realization) or the less modest “un film de    . . . ” (a film by . . . ), both of which are more common. In the case of MÉLO, I think mise en scène can be said to mean all of the following: adaptation of the play into a script (which includes a great deal of condensation; citing Cocteau’s description of his own 1921 “contraction” of Antigone (Resnais compares it to photographing Greece from an airplane); choosing actors and crew; supervising the selection of costumes and the construction of sets; directing the actors; selecting camera angles and lenses, and determining if, where, and how the camera moves, and how the lighting changes, with the help of the cinematographer (Charlie Van Damme); working with the composer of the original music (Philippe-Gérard); and doing the final edit. In short, quite a bit more than the function of “mise-en-scène” assigned by Sarris to Hollywood contract directors.

My earlier suggestion that Resnais’ handling of lighting and camera movements in conjunction with speech resembles the scoring and conducting of music finds its strongest example in the opening scene. To return to the virtuoso extended take, during which Marcel tells Pierre and Romaine about the disillusionment he suffered while performing a Bach sonata at a concert in Havana — a crucial moment in the plot, because this later seems to be the precise moment at which Romaine falls in love with Marcel, setting the whole chain of melodramatic events in motion — Resnais’ masterful mise en scène contrives to give us the effect of a flashback without once cutting away from the characters in the present and the sounds in the garden.

How does he do this? Two of the major elements in Marcel’s story are the music he is playing at the concert and his nervous concern about the attention of his mistress Hélène in the audience. Resnais’s slow camera movement — which moves first behind Pierre and Romaine, and then toward Marcel — helps us to conjure up both of these elements. The steady movement of the camera becomes the steady flow of the sonata, and Marcel’s agitated scanning of the concert audience for his mistress’s face becomes the camera scanning past Pierre and Romaine while Marcel is addressing them.

As stated earlier, the various “stations” of the camera and configurations of the characters during this sequence prefigure Marcel’s subjective experience of the entire drama to come. So the complex achievement of Resnais’ mise en scène in this shot is to superimpose three separate tenses and experiences at once — the subjective past (Marcel’s monologue), the objective present (Marcel telling the anecdote to Pierre and Romaine), and the subjective future (Marcel’s perception of his affair with Romaine) — and to do so in a manner that is simple, fluid, and mesmerizing, quite the reverse of what Sontag refers to as “overburdened” in his earlier features, which also aim at constructing multiple tenses.

9. Symmetry.

The construction of Bernstein’s play depends on a great many substitutions and displacements; Resnais’ adaptation helps to throw them into relief by treating the symmetries like the repetitions and variations of musical motifs.

The main examples of this that come to mind concern two sonatas and a series of lies. In the first scene, Pierre discusses his love for Brahms’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Major, which is the main piece that he and Romaine play together, and which reminds him of his youth with Marcel at the conservatory. Later, Marcel recalls his performance of Bach’s Sonata for Violin in C Major in Havana.

The second scene, a secret meeting between Romaine and Marcel at the latter’s Paris flat, begins as they’re playing the last measures of the Brahms sonata, and ends as Marcel begins to perform the Bach. In the second act, during the attempted poisoning, Pierre tries to convince Romaine to play the Brahms sonata with him — a piece that, years later, Marcel agrees to play with him at the end of the third act.

In a similar instance of symmetry, Marcel’s detailed and elaborate lie to Pierre in the final scene — that Romaine loved only her husband and remained faithful to him, and that his own tears are caused by a current lover and unresolved relationship — forms a complex and ambiguous rhyme effect with the lie told to him by his mistress Hélène in Havana. In between these two poles, Romaine tells elaborate and multiple lies to Pierre, and a priest urges Christiane to conceal the truth about Romaine from Pierre. The constellation of all these lies provides a universe of moral relativity that makes us much less confident about the wrongness of lying than Marcel is in the opening scene. Although lying ends a relationship of love and trust with Hélène, it effectively preserves one with Pierre, as well as Pierre’s memory of his relationship with Romaine.

10. Mystery.

This moral ambiguity is merely one facet of a voluptuous mysteriousness that envelops MÉLO as a whole: its characters, its plot, its period, its meanings. For every artificial detail, there is a corresponding element of authenticity and truth: the “artificial” theater program containing the names and faces of Azema, Ardant, Arditi, Dussollier, Bernstein, and Resnais has the same art deco cover as the “real” theater program of 1929; the studio set of Marcel’s flat contains real artworks by Juan Gris and Henri Laurens rather than reproductions (for the sake of the actors, according to Resnais). The complex dialogue created by the film — a dialogue between the style of the 1920s and the content of the 1980s — ultimately makes us just as much aware of the content of the 1920s and the style of the 1980s. (MÉLO is certainly a film of the 1980s rather than an antique, but it may take us another twenty years to determine why and how.)

Our usual view of the past, as filtered through nostalgia and other forms of ideological reduction and simplification, is glimpsed as if through the wrong end of a telescope.  (A model for this shrinkage is provided by Main Street, U.S.A. in Disneyland and Disney World,  where every brick, shingle, window, and gas-lamp is five-eighths the normal size — allowing every pint-sized customer to conclude glibly that the present is much larger than the past.) By making the past as vast, as complex, and as luminously real as the present — perhaps even more so, if one considers the depleted view of the present offered by most movies — MÉLO suddenly puts us in touch with how remote and self-serving our usual bite-size portions of history are, and how much remains to be discovered and rediscovered.

How much do we finally know about Romaine and why she commits suicide? According to what the plot implies, the moment that she falls in love with Marcel and the moment that she decides to kill herself are both moments that we see; yet she remains mainly a closed book to us. When she arranges for a musical session at Marcel’s flat, and takes steps to conceal this rendezvous from Pierre, we may conclude along with Marcel that she wants to sleep with him. But when Marcel caustically says to her, “You sleep with everybody, don’t you?” and she replies, “What’s it to you?” are we to conclude from this that she does sleep around? If so, who and where are her other lovers?

If she loves Marcel so much that she’s willing to leave Pierre for him, and if she loves Pierre so much that she can’t bring herself to leave him (which is seemingly why she resorts to poison), why is her only suicide letter — which incidentally explains none of these things — written to Pierre and not to Marcel? And does Pierre really believe Marcel’s lie at the end, or does he merely pretend to because his friend is so stubborn about maintaining it?

Much of the mysterious beauty of MÉLO circulates around such questions. Like the beauty and mystery of the music itself, the film moves progressively deeper into feelings and understandings, not to arrive at a single, fixed destination, but to implicate us in the very process of that unveiling, and in the very textures of that density. This is a masterpiece that uses as its point of departure the most hackneyed and familiar of melodramatic plots — the adulterous triangle and the attempted murder — and then makes it all seem brand new.

Chicago Reader, 15 April 1988

This entry was posted in Featured Texts. Bookmark the permalink.