Le Deuxiéme Souffle (Second Breath) was Jean-Pierre Melville’s first film after a four year hiatus in the mid-60s. It was also his final black & white film. Once again he proved himself to be France’s most masterful stylist, while also reinforcing his favored themes of loyalty, friendship, and doomed masculinity. Word is bond in the world of Melville, and Le Deuxiéme Souffle‘s anti-hero Gu Minda (the monolith Lino Ventura) makes that statement numerous times during the film. It’s a pretty standard gangster tragedy, but in the hands of Melville, the film is a contemplative morality play with visual style and inventiveness out the ass.
The film begins with a prison break. It’s a short sequence, but Melville makes it feel meticulous, with no dialogue, heavy on the gestures. Gu busts out with two other convicts. One of them dies miscalculating his jump to the exterior wall. This sets the tone for the rest of the film. Death is looming over everyone. While it appears like Gu and his associates are making plans for their future, it also seems like they’re simply planning their own funerals.
Once outta the pen, Gu spends a lot of time hiding out in other forms of prison cells, such as tiny apartment lairs, cramped buses, and so on. Lino Ventura (Classe Tous Risques) is a stocky guy, so inserting him in these small locations enhances the fact that Gu is still a prisoner of his own criminal aspirations.
He’s going after the “one last big score” – something that’s become a bit tired in contemporary crime films. It’s the heist of $20 million worth of platinum from an armored car (more like a van) that’s being escorted by two motorcycle cops. The actual heist scene is classic Melville. It’s painstaking in detail with elaborately choreographed details. There’s also some nice subtle touches – like when one of the crooks removes the scope from his rifle, taking pride in his accuracy without its help.
Again Melville focuses on an all-male cast, but this time there’s actual emotion coming from the one female int he sausage party: Gu’s girlfriend Manouche (Christine Fabrega). This is easily Melville’s most affecting man/woman relationship. Manouche displays actual deep-rooted feelings for her criminal boyfriend. When he must leave her to meet his fate near the end of the film, there are actual tears! That might be a first and only for Melville.
The film also contains some pretty brutal police interrogation scenes in which Gu is tricked into snitching on his associates. His loyalty and word are everything to Gu, so being made to look like a stool pigeon literally drives him insane. He shoves his cuffed hands through a mesh window, tearing them to shreds, then rams his skull into a bunch of filing cabinets. Death before dishonor, indeed.
Gu spends the rest of the film clearing his name – it’s all that matters to him. And since this is a Melville film, it doesn’t end well for anyone. Le Deuxiéme Souffle has such a simple story, but feels epic in scope. For those who love their crime flicks fatalistic, definitely check out this one – and all of Melville’s other gangster epics while you’re at it.