Le Samuraï

Are intellectual teenagers still into existentialism? or have we exited that age? is it all about theory now? Students downing Badiou and Laruelle to the strains of Tristan Murail? If so, they’re right to. It seems more intellectually demanding, more crazy, more of a shibboleth between the old fucks and the young guns, more of an induction to the modern age than the rudimentary post-romantic shoulder-shrugging of existentialism.

But

I liked Camus a lot.

And I don’t really buy that ‘not real philosophy’ thing.

It may not be real philosophy, but it’s real something, and that something’s very appealing when you’re a teenager: a post-romantic sense of the isolated individual, indifference to conventional social mores (which in return punish that indifference or contempt), misery, nausea and anxiety as necessary corollaries of a universe without epistemological and ethical certainty. Each of these provided serious explanations. it was useful. I could do with something like it now. Nobody understands me. Life’s so unfair. They were self-help manuals, shit self-help manuals admittedly, self-help manuals for people who couldn’t help themselves, but self-help manuals nevertheless, which not only explained why you were so fucking miserable, but why in fact you were some kind of hero for being so fucking miserable. I needed that!

But I picked up The Myth of Sisyphus again recently and was bored out of my mind, so that avenue’s shut. because for a teenager existentialism wasn’t so much about truth, it was about image – how to mentally position yourself in the world, how that looked. So if there’s one thing that french existentialism can be thanked for, it’s cool french films, because that was how the theory became flesh. It reversed the unglamorous polarity of the solitary teenager.

I went to see Le Samuraï when I was 16. The old Lumiere cinema in st martin’s lane, now a gym or something god-fucking-awful like that.

It was a big screen, with lots of soft grey seats ranged in arcs. There were three people in the cinema – me, a cycle courier about five rows in front of me, and a sleeping businessman, two rows behind and about five columns to the left of me.

I remember the setting and the film vividly. the film had a big impact. I got it on dvd, watched it several times.

Anyway, I watched it again the other night. i remembered it well (I said a couple of the lines before they were delivered on screen). How did it stand up?

That’s the opening frame. anyone who’s lived by themselves in a studio flat knows how the inside of your head becomes that flat. look at that first frame again – that’s the inside of someone’s head.

What you can’t see here is that just at the end of this opening the camera moves back and forth in the room, so you get the sensation of looking in a doll’s house. it produces a sense of artificiality, we are looking into this film, as you would look into a doll’s house. By a psychological trick that I don’t really understand, when you do that – emphasise the artificiality – you widen the sense of looking at something universally applicable (we all stand outside it) and less like we’re viewing the specifics of a documentary. Does anyone else get that? I don’t know, it seems a bit rarefied. I’m not sure I’ve articulated it enough.

Once again, you get a strong  sense that the room is a psychological state. for Melville, the director, rooms are like traps. They’re where you end up. There’s a terrifying scene in another of his films, Le Cercle Rouge, where the alcoholic marksman is beset by visual hallucinations in a bout of delerium tremens. rooms are bad. rooms are cages. and to extend the parallel of course, the inside of your head is also a trap, it’s where you end up, in the end.

If we didn’t get all that, Alain Delon keeps a songbird in a cage. Throughout the film, the songbird represents the state of delon’s being. I’m calling him Delon btw because his actual name in the film is Jeff Costello, which for a modern english viewer is too laughable to use without smirking.

One of the things I didn’t pick up the first time I watched it is that delon is a dandy. He’s a dandy in the Beau Brummel sense, that is, he dresses not to stand out but to fit in, and does so with an aesthete’s minute attention to detail.

This impeccability of course makes him stand out.

Props tho to his fixer, here sporting what i’m calling his gesang der jünglinge sweater

The dandy thing comes into sharp focus at one point in the film, where, in a bid to evade police, delon takes a route to 1, rue Lord Byron. That reference immediately clicked with something Kingsley Amis had written on James Bond:

the fact is that, inside that conservative dark-blue worsted suit and under the same skin as a bearer of the hardly-earned double-0 prefix, there lurks an intruder from another age. we can identify him easily enough by adding in at this point some of the accounts of the physical impression given by Bond, his looks and what people feel they signify.

and with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal and cold.

the table was becoming wary of this dark englishman who played so quietly, wary of the half-smile of certitude on his rather cruel mouth. who was he? where did he come from? what did he do?

Well, he started life about 1818 as Childe Harold in the later cantos of Byron’s poem, reappeared in the novels of the Brontë sisters and was around until fairly recently in such guises as that of Maxim de Winter in Miss Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The Byronic hero – Byron’s sentimental and humourless idealization of part of himself rather than any kind of real Byron – the Byronic hero is lonely, melancholy of fine natural physique which has become in some way ravaged, of similarly fine but ravaged countenance, dark and brooding in expression, of a cold or cynical veneer, above all enigmatic, in possession of a sinister secret.

This is delon in le samuraï, and that 1 rue Lord Byron made it easy to identify that this is how were are at least partly to view delon – as a romantic hero.

The paradoxical or absurdist idea of singular anonymity conveys itself in another aspect of delon’s appearance in this film – he never makes the slightest attempt to disguise himself:

At one stage the police ask him to swap his hat and mac with two other people in a line up. He and his dispersed pieces of clothing are identified immediately. Even in disguise he is only the image of himself. This has certain consequences for the film. he can never expect to go unnoticed and so must avoid being seen.

The film is a single action, and everything in it tends towards its completion. this spartan exclusion of the unnecessary is matched by the script: the dialogue is extraordinarily spare, even for a noir, even for a Melville noir, and all of it can be taken as both content and explication, like the passing comment to a group of poker players –

je me perdre jamais. jamais vraiment. 

(I never lose. never truly/completely)

These statements compel analysis after the final reel, for a film which is, like the expressions of the actors in it, motionlessly opaque. There are no tells. facial expressions are an attempt to engage sympathy, to encourage the belief in an outer and an inner where the apparent former can be explained by the suggested latter. even the slightest expression of feeling offers, therefore, reason, and reason has no place in this fatalistic and absurd world. once again, the spareness encourages this sort of extreme analysis, and in that sense, is cognate with Camus’ sparse algerian, sun-bleached and desert presentation of the absurd. we are presented with a singularity.

I wondered because of this, while I was watching, whether this was a reductive film, but the fecundity of speculation required by the viewer I think puts a reverse on that accusation.

There are, after all, plenty of other things to enjoy about this film. the palette is marvellous – all dull greys and washed-out blues:

It’s nearly always raining. No matter the dirigiste economic exertions of the government, the Paris represented here is the fucked up paris of the ’60s – the massacre of the algerians in ’61, the barricades in ’68, a year after Le Samuraï was made.

Some of the images have almost the appearance of a Caravaggio painting:

The film also contains one of the great chase scenes in any film, across the Paris metro:

The chase is predominantly successful because it intensifies to a point of climax the film’s two principle notions of uncertainty and visibility. for delon, a great deal apparently hangs on his ability to correctly identify people from their impassive externals (their internal or hidden life here is not a spiritual or emotional one, incidentally, but one of persecution). For the police, the singularity of delon is either visible or not. the film solves these two strands by re-encrypting an image posed in The Third Man. This keeps the audience in a state of suspense until the end of the film, but the resolution of that practical riddle only pushes the uncertainty about what was known and intended back into the labyrinth of the metro and beyond.

I’m still not sure I’ve located the decisive moments, or understood entirely the motivations of Le Samuraï, and I think that’s how it’s supposed to be – that ambiguity born of its minimalist resistance to interpretation is paradoxically its richness. And as I’ve suggested, I find it rich in other ways. It’s Melville’s best film I think, tho not his best trailer – that would be this:

It’s still a good film, I still really like it. If i call it my favourite that’s probably only for the usefulness in conversations of having a favourite, and I’m not sure that it hasn’t been surpassed for me these days by The Maltese Falcon, a very similar film in some ways, even more remarkable in those ways and others, perhaps.

But there is one thing about this film:

fuck me it makes you want to smoke.

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