Sunday, April 7, 2013

Period Drama Challenge Review #1: Le Silence de la Mer

The film genre, Film Noir, has many aspects about it that draw people to it, such as the twists and turns in the plotlines, the snappy dialogue, and the dark tones and urban settings.  But what has always drawn me to Film Noir the most, has been the 1940's fashions and hair styles, and the entire atmosphere of the '40's altogether.  I am of course drawn to the great characters, storylines, and witty dialogue as well, but being a fan of style in the 1940's has played a prominent role in making me a fan of Film Noir.

The movie I am reviewing is not Film Noir.  It is set in the '40's though, so it's nostalgic for me in the same way that Film Noir is.  It's also a French movie, which ties in for me with Film Noir, because it was the French film critics who came up with the term, while viewing American movies in France.  Of course the heroine of this movie is not at all a femme fatale; nevertheless, the wartime tension in the movie I am about to review is tantamount to the uneasy atmosphere typical of Film Noir.  As well, the German character in the movie, with his love of culture, reminds me of the German directors who came to Hollywood and brought their German Expressionist sensibilities to Film Noir.  The color and wide expanse of countryside in the film is a contrast to the usual black and white cityscapes of Film Noir, but all in all it is a movie which conjures up the same time period.

Naturally, a more recent film that takes place in the '40's will take the viewer back in time, but not quite as efficiently as a movie that was actually made during the '40's.  A film that takes place in the '40's will, without a doubt, interest me, though, and the 2004 remake of the 1949 film Le Silence de la Mer (The Silence of the Sea) is no exception.  Le Silence de la Mer (1949) is a famous film by Jean-Pierre Melville, based on the 1942 book by Jean Bruller, who published his work under the name Vercors, when he joined the French Resistance, during the Nazi occupation of northern France in WWII.  Le Silence de la Mer became heavily symbolic of the French Resistance after it was published.  The 1949 film based on Bruller's book was actually filmed in the author's home outside Paris.  Melville's film was influenced by Film Noir, as indeed this wonderful French film director was famously influenced by quite a few elements of American society.

Jeanne Larosière rests during a walk home.
However, I am reviewing the 2004 TV adaptation, not the original 1949 film.  In comparison to the original film, which was termed "anti-cinematographic" because it emphasized a narrative or literary quality of storytelling, rather than a visual aspect, the cinematography of the 2004 adaptation thrives amid the vibrant French countryside.
This still expresses the mood of the overall film perfectly.  One could interpret it as representing how people turn their backs to each other in wartime, cutting themselves off emotionally from other people.
Julie Delarme (left) as Jeanne Larosière in Le Silence de la Mer (2004).
Le Silence de la Mer takes place in a town in the West of France and begins in November, 1941.  It tells the story of a young woman named Jeanne Larosière, who lives with her grandfather, André Larosière (originally Jeanne was the niece of her uncle, but the 2004 TV adaptation changed the relationship to granddaughter and grandfather).  It isn't long before the viewer is informed that Jeanne is a piano teacher; in fact the first scene shows Jeanne giving a piano lesson.

The main premise of Le Silence de la Mer (2004) is about a German officer who is billeted in the country home of Jeanne and her grandfather in Nazi-occupied France.  The German officer (a Wehrmacht captain), whose name is Werner von Ebrennac (played by Thomas Jouannet), is very civil towards Jeanne and her grandfather, André (played by Michel Galabru).  Even though Jeanne and André refuse to speak to him, treating him as their enemy, disdaining him with their silence, and wishing to avoid any hint of collaboration, Werner remains gracious and polite, greeting them and wishing them good night when he returns to their home each evening.  He speaks to them as equals and relates to them in terms of their similar class and common cultural heritage.  He is an avid admirer of French culture and is knowledgeable about all the great French writers.  He notices that Jeanne plays the music of the great German composers, as well.  He is culturally invested and is also of the opinion that France and Germany would benefit from a union of their two countries.  His philosophy is that common humanity supersedes nationalism.

From one perspective, Werner may relate to his hosts because they come from the same class.  Much as Karl Marx pointed out in his book, The Paris Commune, the ruling classes of Germany and France have more in common than their nationalistic conflicts would suggest.  However, I think this is too cynical an interpretation for this film.  Werner is an individual, and he is not that superficial.  He is a genteel and cultured person with sensibilities toward life as a whole, and to other human beings.  His courtesy extends to everyone (including his driver, as well as the young boy named Pierre, who Werner aids when he falls and hurts himself), regardless of class.  I interpret Werner as being basically against war and someone who doesn't fit into the culture of war and the brutality around him, an aspect of his character that Jeanne comes to realize when she tries to protect him from the resistance, which has targeted the German officers for assassination.

Jeanne plays the piano in a desperate attempt to
prevent Werner from being harmed.
The scene in which Jeanne tries to prevent Werner from being hurt brings to light one of the major themes in this story:  communication.  Because Jeanne cannot communicate to Werner through speech, she instead plays on her piano, because music is "a universal language".  Music is an understanding between people, a way for us to express our emotions.  Music can overcome language barriers, and bond people even when they have differences, because the connection humanity feels towards music is a similarity stronger than our differences.  Every time I watch this scene I am fascinated by how profound it is.  Jeanne feels trapped, because she must choose between her loyalty to her country and her loyalty to someone she has come to see as a human being first and foremost (a person she may even have fallen in love with), not merely an enemy of her country.  It comes down to the question:  which matters most in the grand scheme of things?  Should she remain loyal to her country or loyal to all of humanity?  Jeanne is also faced with a moral dilemma.  Wouldn't the right thing to do be to save the person's life, no matter what their nationality is, even in this situation, in the midst of WWII?

The warm, life affirming attitude of the 2004 adaptation is quite different than the supposed existential outlook of Melville's oeuvre (I wonder if anyone so flamboyantly alive as Melville was, could ever really have a problem with the Universe;  I suspect the great director merely followed what he regarded as an important tragic heroic archetype).  *Spoiler alert (I'm about to discuss the ending of the film)*  Despite the geraniums in the window, the ending of the 2004 version is more sombre and realistic than earlier in the movie, although the basic tone of the movie doesn't change.  It remains bitter sweet throughout.  Werner's character hasn't changed, but he no longer has the same illusions about the war.  Still, the ending of the 2004 is no where near as stark as Melville's endings inevitably are, and the characters are allowed to live on.  *End of spoiler*

Melville would have been uniquely placed to appreciate the nuances and contradictions of war between France and Germany, as his real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach, his family German Jews from Alsace.   His experience in the French Resistance would also have made adapting this particular book a poignant act.  The 2004 remake of Le Silence de la Mer retains the poignancy of the original story, and also its literary complexity.  Everything about this film is beautiful and bitter sweet, from Jeanne and Werner's first encounter to their last - the music, the acting, the story, and the cinematography are all magnificently done and presented well.  I highly recommend this film.  I highly recommend the 1949 film, as well.  As for questionable content, there are no inappropriate scenes, but there is a scene in which Jeanne's cousin tries to assault her.  Nothing is shown in the scene, and there is nothing immodest throughout the film.  So once again, I highly recommend this film.  *Spoiler alert* Although, however bitter sweet, the ending makes me sad every time I watch it.  *End of spoiler*  Overall, Le Silence de la Mer is a beautiful film.


  1. I'd never heard of Le Silence de la Mer before, but it sounds lovely and thought-provoking! I love the 1940s era too, and am endlessly fascinated with how people endured during WWII, so I will try to find this. Thank you!

    1. I hope you watch it! :) I really enjoyed it. All of Le Silence de la Mer can be found on You Tube with english subtitles. Here's part one: