26/10/2017 – The 62nd edition of the Valladolid International Film Week has joined the tribute organized by the Jean Pierre Melville Foundation and the French Institute to the figure of the French director, along with other international film competitions such as Sundance, Cannes, Venice, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Mar del Plata, among others. Melville’s nephew, Laurent Grousset, and his daughter (Melville’s grand-niece), Tania Grousset, the president and director of the Foundation, respectively, made a visit to the festival.
Seminci.- How did Jean Pierre Melville end up in cinema? When did he discover his vocation?
Laurent Grousset.- When Jean Pierre was 6 years old he loved the circus and everything that had to do with images. And at 6 and a half years old, my grandfather, his father, gave him a small camera with a handle and he began to record everything. His life, his friends, the street, a passing dog… anything. He also had a small projector and was a producer and director at that young age. And he’d always liked that. Then Jean Pierre grew up and went to school, although he was a very poor student. His problem was watching movies. His father and uncle took him to see movies. They would go down to a coffee shop where films by Chaplin and other directors were being shown. At this time the films were silent. But at age 12, with the advent of sound film, he heard the roaring Metro lion and on that day changed his life and said: I am going to be a director.
He grew up, studied and did a lot of small jobs. As a teenager my uncle was a movie addict and if he didn’t watch five movies a day he became sick. He also worked for a diamond shop and one day his boss asked him to bring a bag of diamonds to a customer. He took them but between the store and the client there was a cinema and he took the diamonds to the movies and the next day he lost his job. He grew up and kept working.
Seminci.- What role did Melville play in World War II?
Laurent Grousset.- He enlisted as a soldier to go to fight in the French army, but General Petain’s accord disappointed him so much that he left the uniform. He crossed the Pyrenees on foot and in Spain was arrested by the Civil Guard and imprisoned in Cartagena for four months but managed to escape. From Gibraltar he went to London by boat and there went to see General de Gaulle. At that time he used the surname Melville for the first time. Jean Pierre loved three young writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London and Herman Melville. That very day with General De Gaulle he said that his name was Jean Pierre Melville. Then he returned to France, where he fought very hard.
Tania Grousset.- Melville never spoke of the war, but said that it was the best memory of his youth. He was referring to the strong values he found during the war, where he learned about betrayal, camaraderie, honor, respect for words and trust. They are values he has always reflected in his films. He discovered the purity of those values during the war.
Seminci.- What was Melville’s directorial debut?
Laurent Grousset – On the eve of a battle in Italy, Jean Pierre told his friend “If I’m alive tomorrow, I’m going to begin my film studies.” Thank God he made it out alive and returned to the country in 1946. He went to see the union to make a film. The unions were very strong then and demanded a minimum number of technical staff and they said that it was not possible. My uncle never accepted a “no” and decided to make a movie without anyone. He bought half-blurred AGFA film from 1942, spoke with a very well-known clown at the time and made a 20 minute short film [24 heures de la vie d’un clown (A Day in the Life of a Clown)]. Melville always considered it a mistake of his youth, he put it in a drawer and never wanted it to be screened.
Tania Grousset: Jean Pierre was an extremely perfectionist, meticulous, obsessive person. But the denial of that first film already shows that it was either perfect or simply that he did not want it to be shown.
Seminci.- This energy was also manifested when he decided to adapt ‘Le silence de la mer’ (The Silence of the Sea)…
Laurent Grousset: Jean Pierre had read a short novel by Vercors during the war and wanted to make the film, but they did not want to give him the rights to the book because at that time he was a nobody. He said “I’m going to make the movie and if you don’t like it, I’ll burn it.” He had not stepped on a movie set in his life, had not attended a film shoot in his life, but had a huge memory of the hundreds of movies he had seen, and he worked on the film, without money, without technical equipment, for many months. He finished the film, showed it to Vercons and members of the Resistance, and when it finished they stood up and broke into applause.
Seminci.- It was the birth of an author considered the father of the ‘Nouvelle Vague’ (New Wave)
Laurent Grousset.- Many of those authors came to ask his advice, but it was something he did not accept. He said that they were people who made cheap movies, with limited equipment, without scenery… Interestingly, when Jean Pierre began to make feature films, those of the Nouvelle Vague turned their backs on him (Laughter).
Tania Grousset .- He did not agree with the values of that group of filmmakers that broke with the kind of cinema that was made until that moment.
Seminci.- What was Melville’s relationship with the actors when he was filming?
Laurent Grosset.- With his family was the picture of tenderness, but on the set he was very different. He was very hard, very demanding, he could get angry and he did not hide away to do so. I have seen him destroy a set because he did not like it. But the one thing that he respected, admired, loved and worshiped were the actors. He always said that a director can be made, can be manufactured, the actor cannot. He had a very special way of directing them. He put them in charge of their responsibilities. Before filming the movie he explained the movie. He had a meeting with the actors, he told them to come with him to make the film like he wanted and that was the end of it.
Seminci.- What efforts are the Melville Foundation developing to commemorate the director’s centenary?
Laurent Grousset.- His nephews, my cousin Remy Grumbach and I, have created the Jean Pierre Melville Foundation, directed by my daughter Tania, with the aim of preserving the Melville heritage: making sure we have copies of his remastered films, spreading his work and attracting young people so that they know this valuable cinema.
Tania Grousset.- We are fortunate in the foundation to be able to count on big names that from the beginning have been supporting us throughout the world, organizing annual events to publicize all the Melville cinema. We want the foundation to be the reference for all countries that need information about copyright or any other need concerning Melville’s work.
Seminci.- How do you plan to spread Melville’s work among young people?
Tania Grousset.- One of our ideas is to create the Melville Prize to award a scholarship to a young director under 35 and help them direct their first film. They must be a “Melvillian” director. That is to say, it is necessary to understand his legacy, knowing precisely the difficulties that Melville had. If we are able to do something to help filmmakers realize their first project, that will be the Melville social award.
Jean Pierre Melville was an almost obsessively accurate person. He was a creative director, he was behind every detail. Melvillian cinema has a very personal management of time and silences. There is a lot of silence in his films, but I think it’s the head of the viewer that fills those silences. We want to support auteur cinema and film noir. That is our goal, but we will continue to define it in more detail later on.
Seminci.- What did he mean for you personally?
Laurent Grusset.- Jean Pierre took great care of me, taught me to love the circus, music, jazz, cinema, of course, and Vietnamese cuisine. He was a man whom I loved very much and who is still alive for me. All that we are doing, you and the people, with these awards continues to give him life, for me that is very important. We always had a very close relationship. He was a fantastic storyteller.