Thursday, April 27, 2006

In which the Meridian, having seen Le Samouraï, contemplates a couple of additions to his wardrobe

Specifically, a fedora and a black trenchcoat.

Le Samouraï (1967; dir. Jean-Pierre Melville; starring Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, Cathy Rosier) is the sort of film where you think, If I dressed like that guy, I could BE that guy. That is just how powerful, how iconic, wardrobe becomes here. It does this film no disservice to say that its style IS its substance.

Because that is so, this film, visually spare and with long stretches of no dialogue (no one speaks a word for the film's first 9 minutes and 52 seconds), demands our close, attentive watching as few films of any genre require of us these days. This is a film in which surfaces do not deceive but reveal to us all we need to know to follow what's happening--if we're paying attention, that is. Thematically as well, those surfaces reveal two worlds, two manners of living, in conflict with each other.

Alain Delon plays Jef Costello, a nearly-silent, austere-living man so good at his job of gun-for-hire (he's never yet been arrested for any crime) that it is his very blankness that attracts the attention of a police superintendent (François Périer) when the owner of a Paris nightclub turns up dead. Jef lives in a spare room but clean room in a run-down hotel, his only apparent luxury being a small bird he keeps in a cage. I say "apparent" because, well, let's just say that it is Jef's close observation of the bird--twice--that keeps the film from ending way too early. He is also the "samurai" of the film's title: the mythos of the samurai's bearing and honor are very much part of this film's texture. The manner in which he straightens his fedora after putting on his coat, even the way he puts on his white gloves just before he kills someone, transform his wardrobe from mere costume into the physical trappings of ritual.

The film's plot is très noir-ish: Jef is the killer of the nightclub owner--we see him do it--but because he is picked up on suspicion of having committed the murder, the people who hired him now seek to kill him (he had promised that no complications would arise from the hit). Only trouble is, Jef doesn't know who hired him, much less why they wanted the man dead. So the balance of the film consists of Jef simultaneously seeking information on his client and dodging the various police survelliances of his activities. Through all this, Jef betrays almost no sign of emotion, with the possible exception of the second time we see him steal a car to make a getaway; though shot almost exactly like the first car-stealing scene, early in the film, in the second one we see just the faintest twitches of nervousness in his upper lip. Jef is the epitome of cool, of elegance; his manner of living is as sharp, as clean, as the brim of his fedora. But his austerity tempers that coolness, making him as priest-like as it's possible for this very secular man to be.

But he lives in a Paris distinctly lacking in those qualities. The buildings all need paint jobs, the trash doesn't get picked up very often. Among the suspects rounded up for the nightclub owner's shooting, he stands out because, as the superintendent says, he's had no trouble with the police before and his alibi is "too airtight." Messiness, be it in one's manner of dress or in how one has lived one's life, is the norm in this world: one other suspect is revealed to have a fairly lengthy criminal record, including attempted murder, but he is let go immediately. Jef becomes a sympathetic character because we recognize that, allowing for that little matter of his killing people for a living, his way of living is perhaps preferable to how most of the rest of us live ours. His integrity is not to himself so much as it is to a code not of his own making that shapes the choices he makes. So long as he is true to it, he does not have to worry about himself. But the corollary of that statement is, if others do not follow the same code, THEN he has to worry about himself.

My students, fine 'Murikins all, tend not to like foreign films because they don't like reading the subtitles. But I will be recommending Le Samouraï to them. My hook will be that Quentin Tarantino and John Woo are great admirers of it, but I'll also tell them that this French film's real language is what we see. As an IMDB reviewer notes, its great strength as a film is that it so forcefully reminds us that film is a visual medium, first and foremost. And in these days of film-making that, for various reasons, causes us to ask, What was the point in making that?, reminders can be valuable things.

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1 comment:

Mary said...

Ha! I too am looking for a trenchcoat! I started with Le Cercle Rouge and just can't resist the look! Oh to be a guy with Alain Delon's looks and penchant for pulling off the journalist/streaker look!