Jean-Pierre Melville: Alone Behind the Camera


Bernard Tessier

(Fayard, 272 pages, 2017)


In Melville's films, there is an aesthetic that gives you the feeling that ... if you truly enjoy movies with all your heart, you cannot but succeed in making a good one simply by having spent time watching them. Le Doulos is my favorite scenario of all time. First, you do not understand anything and then, in the last twenty minutes, everything is explained.                                                                   

—Quentin Tarentino

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The French master Jean-Pierre ... shot great, extremely elegant and complex gangster movies, made with love,  and in which criminals and cops adhere to a code of honor like feudal knights.                                                                                                                                                                          —Martin Scorcese

Melville is a god for me. When I saw The Samurai for the first time, it was a shock: Melville technique and his very cool narrative style felt incredibly novel ... I love how Melville manages to combine his own culture with Eastern philosophy.    

                                                                                                                        —John Woo

Jean-Pierre Melville, beloved by the best of modern directors, is considered the godfather of the French New Wave influencing generations of international filmmakers with such movies—now cult favorites—as The Red Circle, The Army of Shadows, or The Samurai. More than forty years after his untimely death at age fifty-five, his biography remained to be written. Bernard Tessier has now filled the gap with this new biography in which he draws the portrait of a man who was passionately dedicated to his art and who persisted in making movies on his own terms.

Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in a Jewish Alsatian family, Jean-Pierre Melville fought in the French Resistance during World War II and adopted the nom de guerre Melville as a tribute to his favorite American writer. In the first chapters of Melville, Tessier highlights the significant biographical elements that influenced the course of Melville’s life. In particular, he details, with the help of previously unseen documents, Melville’s impressive war record. Coupled with a great admiration for Hollywood gangster pictures of the 1930s and ’40s, the experience of war was a determining factor in Melville’s work that inspired both the themes and the filmmaking style of his movies.

Tessier shows the tortuous process that accompanied the conception and production of Melville’s fourteen movies: the never-ending financial struggle, the endless negotiations and stormy relationships with authors, producers and actors. Melville decided early on in his career to go his own way and, unwilling to compromise, he started making films on a very low budget. Then, in the early 1950s, he built his own film studio in Paris  – a legendary place visited by aspiring film directors like Godard, Chabrol, Malle or Truffaut and many of the most celebrated actors of post-war French cinema – from Simone Signoret to Jean-Paul Belmondo and, of course, Melville’s iconic actor, Alain Delon.

Melville, as Tessier describes him, was difficult, obsessive, and perfectionist, but many looked up to him nonetheless as someone who inspired, and encouraged, them to make movies in a different way. From the production side, Melville was, in many respects, a pioneer of independent film making, and the notion of home movies, in his case, could be taken literally: his studio on Rue Jenner was where he lived.  On the creative side, he reinvented the rules of cinematic convention with slow-moving entry scenes, minimalist dialogue, and innovative editing techniques.

Tessier reveals how Melville transformed French cinema in his own, individualistic, way. This book presents the reader with a fair, respectful, yet not indulgent portrait of a man through the one thing that mattered the most to him: the making of a memorable cinematographic universe. 

Bernard Tessier is a journalist, documentary filmmaker and the author of numerous biographies of French actors and singers.


C. L. R. James: The Revolutionary Life of a “Black Plato”

Matthieu Renault

(La Découverte, 232 pages, 2016)

A fascinating plunge into the writings of C. L. R. James, which also proves the relevance of the questions that [James] explores . . . The essay shows with acuity how, for him, the goal of the black movement was not only the emancipation of Africa or of minorities but also, through these emancipations, their reattachment—Renault writes of the “connection”—to a global plan . . . at a time when leftist and extreme-leftist organizations are often barely making the link between their demands and those of immigrant or post-colonial minorities, the philosophy of C. L. R. James could enrich the debate. A beneficial reflection and an additional reason to discover the work of this activist, who should never be overlooked. —Politis

C. L. R. James, an Afro-Trinidadian historian, journalist, playwright, and social theorist—dubbed “a black Plato” by the London Times in 1980—wrote, thought, and lived at the intersection of several major twentieth-century political movements: Marxism, anti-colonialism, and civil rights.

James’s life spanned almost an entire century and three continents: born in Trinidad in 1901, he spent his life moving around the world: to England, the United States, and the Caribbean, with stops in continental Europe, Ghana, and Mexico, before his death in 1989 in London. Over those eighty-eight years—which encompassed two world wars, the American civil rights movement, and worldwide colonial and minority emancipation movements—the life and thought of this historian, journalist, social theorist, and activist would come to be intricately linked with the most central concerns of the twentieth century.

He became attracted to Marxism in 1930s England, where he became a leading figure in a small Trotskyist group. Although he later broke with Trotskyism in order to defend the idea of working-class self-emancipation, he stayed loyal to Marxism. His concerns were not, however, limited to the economic. His speeches and writings on the “Negro question” in the United States in the 1940s foreshadowed the civil rights movement. He was a close friend of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first head of state following its independence from Britain in 1957, and was active in the Pan-African movement. Although he considered himself to be an orthodox Marxist, some scholars have argued that his focus on colonial emancipation in fact drew him away from mainstream Marxism, which didn’t address issues of race and colonization—an argument that Renault suggests is flawed.

In addition to political and social movements, James loved and wrote about literature and cricket, although both of these cultural pastimes were themselves enmeshed in politics. Cricket, the favorite sport of the British, was a symbol of British imperialism, while literature profoundly influenced James’s way of narrating the world. He dedicated one book to Herman Melville, and his admiration of Shakespeare framed his writing of the tragic history of the Haitian revolution.

He may have been called “the black Plato,” but Renault points out that this nickname is particularly ironic. Plato represents the archetype of the superior intellectual caste of which the Marxist James was critical; moreover, like so many terms with “black” attached, a “black Plato” suggests that the default white Plato was superior.

James’s work is a key part of postcolonial studies, the study of the African Diaspora, Trotskyism, and sports literature—arenas of study not usually found within the same context. In this insightful, well-organized biography, Matthieu Renault explains the ways in which James’s life influenced his work, and vice versa, thereby illuminating some of the central paradoxes of Jamesian thought.

Matthieu Renault is a philosophy lecturer at Université Paris 8-Vincennes-Saint-Denis. He previously wrote Frantz Fanon. De l’anticolonialisme à la critique postcoloniale (Amsterdam, 2011) and L’Amérique de John Locke. L’expansion coloniale de la philosophie européenne (Amsterdam, 2014).

Wagner, Anti-Semite

Jean-Jacques Nattiez

(Editions Christian Bourgois, 565 pages plus annex, 2015)

[The] definitive work. —Livres Hebdo

Once you have it in hand, you don’t put it down. —Le Monde

Jean-Jacques Nattiez takes on a big taboo in the history of music. He has the merit of tackling the subject head on, without trying to please, and in addition, with great perspective and a sincere desire to clarify the subject, not excuse it. —L’Opéra

Jean-Jacques Nattiez, brilliant scholar and distinguished expert on the composer, proposes a psychological, historical, and sociological angle that allows is to rise above simple moral judgement, necessary as it is. —Les échos

Renowned French-Canadian musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez, a pioneer of musical semiology and author of Musics: An Encylopedia for the Twenty-first Century (Actes Sud, 2003–2007), has examined Wagner the man and Wagner the musician in great depth by bringing together issues of history, philosophy, sociology, and psychoanalysis. Driving his inquiry is the question of how an artist of his stature and influence could also hold such vehement and dark views of Jews, to mock, deride, and vilify Jews and Jewish tradition in his music and librettos and even to write anti-Semitic pamphlets outside of the field of music.

Hitler was known to have admired Wagner’s music, to have had close ties to his family, and to have celebrated the composer’s work at the famous Bayreuth Festival. Less well known is that at the same time as Wagner was composing some of his greatest masterpieces, he was also writing anti-Semitic tracts, some of which are included in this book. A reading of these materials, and of his musical works, makes it clear that he abhorred the music heard at synagogues, or in Jewish folk tradition. Fragments of Jewish religious or folk music, the author explains, were used in a derogatory way whenever a Jewish character would appear on stage in his operas.

This definitive personal and artistic biography confronts the towering figure of Wagner, one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists, with admiration but not apology. The author presents the material in order to write a critique of an important chapter in the history of music, but notes his desire to avoid causing scandalous discussion.

Jean-Jacques Nattiez is a professor in the music department of the University of Montreal, and an award-winning, world-renowned musicologist. He received the Prix Listeriae Québec-Paris in 1997 for his novel Opera. Perhaps the best well-known of his numerous writings is the multi-volume work Musiques, published by Actes Sud between 2003 and 2007.

Eve Curie: Pierre and Marie Curie’s Other Daughter, Portrait of a Liberated Woman

Claudine Monteil

(Editions Odile Jacob, winter 2016, 290 pages)

Eve Curie, the youngest daughter of two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie, and of Nobel laureate Pierre Curie, was a glamorous celebrity in 1920s and 30s Paris.  At first a renowned pianist, she was propelled to world fame by writing the first biography of her mother ever published, Madame Curie (Doubleday, 1937), which won the National Book Award, and was published simultaneously around the world.  She gained further renown in the US as a war correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune.  Eve was also well known by the Roosevelts, whom she implored to join the war.

Once France capitulated in 1940, Eve fled Paris for London, where she joined De Gaulle’s Free France.  There she met dignitaries such as Winston Churchill. Meanwhile, the Vichy government did all it could to destroy her reputation. Her French citizenship, like de Gaulle’s, was revoked, and she was included along with her Jewish partner Henri Bernstein in a horrifying exhibit of anti-Semitic portraits in Paris. Writing for various American newspapers, and having become a well-known voice for American involvement in the war, lecturing around the country, Eve became a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, reporting from the front in places as far flung as Egypt, the Soviet Union and Asia and meeting with world figures such as Nehru, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-shek, and the Shah of Iran. In 1942, she was appointed to the Free French Forces as a liaison officer, and was with them when the Allies liberated Italy and then France. In 1943 she published a Pulitzer Prize-nominated book with Doubleday, Journey Among Warriors, a collection of her articles.

After the war, Eve Curie used her talents as a journalist and a diplomat to fight for human rights and world peace. Her active role in the Second World War, her family’s prestige, and her unique familiarity with the developing world made her a respected figure on the world stage. Her work with NATO, exceptional as a Senior Special Adviser of the General Secretary of NATO, first woman ever to hold such a strategist post, gave her the opportunity to build the strategy of NATO at its beginning. After her marriage to an American ambassador, Henry Labouisse, who became executive director of UNICEF, she traveled to a hundred countries with him and provided him with a unique knowledge of geostrategic priorities and axes.

Her life in the United States and around the world did not prevent her from keeping the Curie Institute running. On September 11, 2001, at the age of ninety-seven, she volunteered to drive victims of the attack on the World Trade Center to the hospital.  On her 100th birthday, Kofi Annan visited her at her apartment on Sutton Place. She died in New York in 2007 at the age of 102, and is buried in New Orleans.

An authorized biography based on new scholarship and previously unseen material from the archives, Eve Curie: Pierre and Marie Curie’s Other Daughter (Odile Jacob 2016) is the first biography of this woman of exceptional ability and courage, who deserves to be better known.

Claudine Monteil, a former French diplomat, is a historian and biographer, and the author of books on Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Oona and Charlie Chaplin, translated in foreign languages, including German, Chinese (3 of them), Japanese (2 of them), Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Turkish. Monteil, like Eve Curie, worked for UNESCO and UNICEF. She is the author, among other books, of Les Sœurs Beauvoir (ed. Calmann-Levy, 2004, translated as The Beauvoir Sisters: An Intimate Look at How Simone and Hélène Influenced Each Other and the World, Seal Press, 2004) and Simone de Beauvoir et les femmes aujourd’hui (Odile Jacob, 2011).

Django Reinhardt: The Life of a Vagabond

Noël Balen

(Le Rocher, 296 pages, 2015)


Django Reinhardt? The greatest guitar player in jazz history. A phenomenal musician, who was a free spirit, living by and for music.

Django died in 1953, but as a musician he is still considered the finest, the most musical of all jazz guitarists, a model for all new generations of musicians. As a man, he fulfilled a range of archetypes. His life was unconventional even for the world of jazz, which had few conventions.

Balen’s biography, Django Reinhardt: The Life of a Vagabond, shows us the exceptional life and career of a remarkable man from his birth in Belgium into a gypsy family to his peaceful death barely forty-three years later. His left hand was mutilated, his leg injured when his caravan burned: How does a man—an 18-year-old—with only three fingers on his left hand relearn the craft he had worked at since he was a young child? How does he learn to walk again on the burned leg the doctors wanted to remove?

He did learn to walk again, with the help of a cane; he learned to play his solos with only two fingers, but used his injured ones for chord work. He discovered jazz. He met the violinist Stéphane Grappelli and with him formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France—one of the first all-strings jazz bands. Then there were years of glory and extravagant spending. Django played with Dizzy Gillespie in France, with Coleman Hawkins, and with Benny Carter. He performed with Louis Armstrong in jam sessions and on the radio.

And then the war began. He fled to England, left his wife there, returned to France, re-formed the quintet with a clarinet replacing Grappelli’s violin. The Nazis interned and killed many gypsies and officially despised jazz, but Reinhardt survived in part because of the protection of surreptitiously jazz-loving Germans. When the war ended, with a new wife and with Grappelli once more a partner, Reinhardt toured the United States: the Cleveland Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, and some work with Duke Ellington. But he was not treated well, not accepted into the American jazz scene. He returned to Europe and rejoined the gypsy world.

Balen’s knowledgeable telling of Django’s life is sensitive and caring, but does not hold back. The biography is completed with the musician’s exhaustive discography.

Noël Balen lives in Paris, where he divides his time between writing, making records, and lecturing on music. He plays bass, is a music critic, and has published many books including biographies of musicians, a novel, and short stories.

André Le Nôtre

Patricia Bouchenot-Déchin

(Fayard, 656 pages, 2013)


Le Nôtre wrote no treatises and few letters, and this book aims at casting new light on him through a renewed analysis of the clues he left behind. —The New Yorker

This book examines how the visionary Frenchman’s work continues to reverberate in public spaces today. —Architectural Digest

André Le Nôtre (1613–1700) was the landscape architect who designed the park of the Palace of Versailles and is still considered France’s greatest landscape and garden designer. He was the principal gardener to King Louis XIV and as such was also responsible for the central pathway through the Tuileries, which became the grand axis of Paris running to the Arc de Triomphe and on to La Défense. Patricia Bouchenot-Déchin, in the first-ever biography of Le Nôtre, meets the challenge of explaining how this grandson of a modest gardener climbed the ladder to this unique position beside the King. 

 In her first and widely acclaimed book about Le Nôtre. André Le Nôtre in Perspective, Patricia Bouchenot-Déchin, along with Georges Farhat, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, paid tribute to this famous gardener’ works of art. In words and magnificent illustrations, the book developed his role in shaping the formal garden style and showed how his work influences us to this day. He provided inspiration for twentieth-century and twenty-first-century designers as diverse as Fletcher Steele and Le Corbusier and for architectural designs as famous as the Washington Mall and the Rockefeller Center in New York City. Even the architect of the September 11 memorial, Peter Walker, said he was deeply influenced by Le Nôtre’s groundbreaking work.

Now, in her biography of Le Nôtre, Bouchenot-Déchin brings to life the story of the famous yet little-known gardener. For example, few people realize that although he had a humble childhood, he rose to enter into dialogues with kings and princes across Europe. He also followed his interests to build a huge collection of fine art. Bouchenot-Déchin shows how great Le Nôtre’s determination was from his earliest days. He became the gardener and designer he’s known to be through hard work and discipline. The impeccably researched book, which drew from the library of the Palace of Versailles, paints a fascinating portrait of an extraordinary man who inspired the world and whose works we continue to walk through with admiration and pleasure.

Patricia Bouchenot-Déchin is a research associate at the Palace of Versailles Research Center as well as at the School of Architecture of Versailles. She is the co-author of André Le Nôtre in Perspective, published in 2013. She was also the curator of the exhibition of the same name which took place in Versailles that year.