Stealing Beauty

Le Cercle Rouge, an almost perfect crime movie

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click to enlarge SOUND OF SILENCES: Melville uses silence the way - lesser directors use music, building tension around - the sound of such things as a cigarette being lit. - RIALTO PICTURES
RIALTO PICTURES
SOUND OF SILENCES: Melville uses silence the way lesser directors use music, building tension around the sound of such things as a cigarette being lit.

There have been crime movies more exciting than Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle). There have been crime movies with more clever twists, more interesting characters, more suspenseful suspense and more glamorous glamour.And yet, despite all this, few crime movies have come as close to perfection.

Le Cercle Rouge is the 12th film of the 13 made by Jean-Pierre Melville, and it feels like a textbook study of everything that's right in all the others. Melville's penultimate film is, in fact, a career-capping homage to the entire crime genre that the director loved so dearly and that he knew so well. It's a languorous, un-showy and uncompromising work that will drive some to distraction, but also a movie of dark, still beauty that will have others weeping tears of pure, noir joy.

Meticulous is a word you hear a lot in regards to Melville, and it applies to Le Cercle Rouge maybe more than to any of his other films. There's a precision and an attention to detail here that are positively uncanny, as well as sleek panache and smarts to spare. Melville's crime movies were always the very definition of cool, and the elegant, understated coolness of Le Cercle Rouge approaches Zen-like dimensions.

The film was extremely popular when it was released in France in 1970, but it bombed here in the States — a commercial failure that might have had something to do with the lame dubbing or the 40 minutes hacked away for the American version. It only took about 30 years for America to come to its senses, but the print of Le Cercle Rouge now making the rounds in this country is the director's original 140-minute cut, completely restored and in the French language in which it was shot. That's the version of Melville's masterpiece that will be shown this week at Tampa's Madstone Theaters — and simply put, it's gorgeous.

It's clear from the outset that the film is a tragedy, but Le Cercle Rouge is as undeniably romantic as it is fatalistic. This is the world Melville captured so beautifully in classics such as Le Doulous, Bob le Flambeur and Le Samourai, a world where poetry radiates from every dark alley and smoky nightclub. It's a world of enigmatic glances, dark suits and skinny ties, fedoras and belted trench coats. It's a world of highly ritualized codes of sacrifice and honor, codes that are every bit as binding as those observed by the ancient samurai of Japan.

Most of all, it's a world of men.

Much has been made of the homoeroticism that's supposedly implicit in this film, but, frankly, I think that's pushing Melville's agenda a bit far. On the other hand, outside of the female dancers smiling and strutting their stuff in the film's marvelous nightclub sequences, there's only one woman to be found in the entirety of Le Cercle Rouge. And even that one single woman is seen almost exclusively as a face in a photograph, gazed at in longing, regret and bitter disappointment by one of the film's male characters. She's there but not there, just one more crushed ideal to be mulled over by the stoic but world-weary men in Melville's world.

And rarely will you find a male more stoic and world-weary than Le Cercle Rouge's Corey (Alain Delon), a professional thief released after five years in prison only to discover his girlfriend shacked up with the guy who betrayed him. With the inevitability of classic Greek tragedy, Corey crosses paths with an escaped criminal named Vogel (For a Few Dollars More's Gian Maria Volonte), and a disillusioned ex-cop (Yves Montand), and the three are soon planning a major heist while being pursued by every policeman in Paris. The heist, of course, will resolve itself either in the biggest score of them all or in complete oblivion. Guess which.

Melville and master cinematographer Henri Decae (The 400 Blows, Purple Noon) pile on the atmosphere, but in a coolly naturalistic way. The early sections of the film are filled with nondescript roadside diners and bleak, snowy landscapes of a France that, like the chilly images of northern Greece in Theo Angeloupolis' films, flies in the face of the country's picture postcard image of itself. It's a bit of a shock when the action shifts to the imposing, unmistakable spaces of Paris, where the palette of choice becomes a distinctive mix of somber steel-blues and deep, elegant grays.

The film is a nearly perfectly calibrated exercise in style and genre, marked by an almost obsessive attention to the smallest detail, right down to the exquisite use of natural sound. Melville uses silence like lesser directors use music, building tension around the sound of a pool cue connecting with a ball, a cigarette being lit, a train speeding along the tracks. Even wardrobe speaks volumes here, with the identical dress codes observed by both cops and criminals pointing out the symbiotic relationship between the two. In Melville's singular world, one defines the other, and each needs the other to exist.

Le Cercle Rouge is about as cool a movie as you'll find, and, in the end, that is its blessing and its curse. I first saw Melville's film many years ago (on one of those horrible, hacked and dubbed videotapes) and, frankly, I initially found it oddly muted, even dispassionate, its plot routine and its ending anti-climatic. I remember being frustrated by what appeared to be the characters' lack of emotion and even doubted the filmmaker's connection to those characters. It took me a long time to "get" Le Cercle Rouge.

Seeing the original, uncut version of the film certainly helped, but what sealed my conversion was finally being able to appreciate the movie for what it is: a total command of form. In Le Cercle Rouge, Melville distills narrative and character down to an essence of looks and gestures that's nearly Zen-like (there's that word again), with performances that become all the more iconic for being so understated you might think the actors were flat-lining.

I'm not suggesting that Le Cercle Rouge is some sort of existential anti-thriller, but bear in mind that the movie probably does have as much in common with Camus' The Stranger as it does with The French Connection. After all, this is one crime caper where everyone's fate is sealed from the start, where not much separates the cops from the crooks, and where characters smile ever so slightly as they say things like, "Crime lurks within us all," and "All men are guilty." Mel Gibson would be pleased.

Barney and Friends: The Return of the Ybor Festival of the Moving Image

Mothers, lock up your children. The Ybor Festival of the Moving Image is back in town.

Organized by David Audet in conjunction with Hillsborough Community College, YFMI is not your parents' film festival. In fact, some of the films aren't even films at all.

The Festival of the Moving Image incorporates performance art, live music, works-in-progress, digital sculpture and site-specific installations, taking an approach to filmmaking that's anything but traditional. If this year's event is anything like last year's, it's best to simply expect the unexpected. YFMI can sometimes be almost painfully arty, but it's also playful, spontaneous, unabashedly experimental and just a wee bit subversive.

This year's festival takes place from March 14 to March 21, with over 60 works being presented at venues including Madstone, Tampa Theatre, Centro Ybor, the HCC Performing Arts Theater, HCC Ybor Room, and the HCC Art Gallery. Numerous workshops, lectures and discussion groups are also scheduled throughout the festival's eight days, with many of the filmmakers and artists planning to be in attendance. Installations and multimedia art shows will be popping up at various locations as well, and a mobile work of art dubbed "Transmission" — a rented 14-foot moving truck, actually, complete with projector screens and a speaker system — will be cruising around town showing videos.

Probably the most exciting news of all is the festival's screenings of Matthew Barney's already legendary Cremaster cycle in its entirety, presented in all its 35mm glory. For those unfamiliar with Barney or his films, the thirtysomething enfant terrible is considered by many to be the most important (and controversial) artist to have emerged in the past decade. Barney's art thrives on mystery and, in any event, it's difficult to assign fixed meanings to what he does. After all, we're talking about a guy who made his rep videotaping himself bound and naked, crawling across a ceiling, while applying cooled Vaseline to various bodily orifices.

Barney's fascination with petroleum and goo of all sorts has persisted throughout a slippery (literally) body of work that has found its most succinct expression in the Cremaster films. These films are obsessed with physical and, I suppose, spiritual transformations, inspired as much by the transgressive, fetish-istic cinema of Bunuel, Lynch and Cronenberg as by the body-oriented performance art of Chris Burden and Vito Acconci. You can't help but get the feeling there's a certain amount of gratuitous jerking of chains going on in the films, but there's more than a little that's brilliant here, too.

The Festival of the Moving Image opens on March 14 at Madstone, with a 2 p.m. matinee of Barney's Cremaster 1 and Cremaster 2. The first film features Vaseline sculptures, Goodyear blimps, and a troupe of dancing girls performing on the blue Astroturf of the Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho. The second film is a metaphorical re-imagining of the murderer Gary Gilmore, complete with bees, salt flats, a glacier, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Cremaster 3, which screens at Madstone on March 18 at 9:30 p.m., is perhaps the most accomplished and intriguing (not to mention longest) film of the entire Cremaster cycle. Celtic mythology and Masonic myths and rituals figure in an opus that's equal parts slapstick, musical revue and artistic apotheosis. The settings this time include the Chrysler Building and the Guggenheim Museum, both of which never looked lovelier. Consider this one a must-see.

There's a lot more in store at this year's festival — far too much, in fact, to attempt listing everything — but here are just a few of the highlights. On March 14, 7 p.m., Tampa Theatre hosts the local premiere of Daphne Wynn Boyd's documentary on a local hero, Ferdie Pacheco: Fight Doctor. The following evening, March 15, YFMI moves to Madstone with one of the best films in the festival, Rivers and Tides. This ravishing meditation on the work of environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy screens at 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday, March 17 is a huge day for the festival, but perhaps the single must-attend is the free screening of Charles Lyman's work-in-progress Bud Lee: Picturemaker, a personal look at a great American photographer who just happens to live right here in town. The 30-minute program begins at 6 p.m. in the HCC Ybor Room.

Among the many other March 17 highlights are two engaging but very different documentaries. Detained is a study of Palestinian women caught up in the Arab-Israeli crisis (2 p.m., Ybor Room), while Afro-Punk examines the culture crossings navigated by black musicians in the hardcore punk scene (7 p.m., Ybor Performing Arts Theater). March 17 is also the date when Wavelengths, a festival-sponsored group show of media artists, opens at the HCC Ybor Art Gallery, and when the Bonk Festival of New Music tears the roof off the HCC Performing Arts Theater. Then, on March 18, Bay area favorite Pat Oleszko comes to Centro Ybor Plaza with A-Roar-Yborealis, a new, original performance with a cast of, well, lots. Showtime is 7 p.m.

The festival's closing weekend is where you'll find some of its most intriguing offerings (including the final parts of Barney's Cremaster cycle), and we'll be covering it all in next week's column. Tickets can be purchased at the individual venues where the screenings are taking place, and totally obsessive high rollers can purchase a $100 Moving Image pass that gets you into every single festival event. For a complete schedule and ticket information, call 813-253-7674 or visit www.yborfilmfestival.com.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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