Thursday, October 16, 2008

Le Samourai - impressions

French cinema is pretty awesome. This is the world that gave us Luc Besson and his Nikita and Leon and The Fifth Element, it gave us Gerard Dipardeou (is that the spelling?) and Jean Reno, and it gave us Paris as the perfect pallette for Paris, I Love You. My knowledge of films is pretty minimal and of this category even less, but I am lucky to have recently watched what truly deserves to be called a classic French film: Le Samourai.

Le Samourai (The Samurai) is a 1967 movie, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, and starring Alain Delon as the lead character, Jeff Costello. Costello is the "Samurai" in this movie, a cold, methodical and ruthless assassin, who takes contracts from people he never sees. He lives alone, in an old apartment complex, with decaying, drab walls, stocking his room only with the barest of essentials. His only companion is a pet bird he keeps in a cage, which he occasionally refills its water container and seed dispenser. He maintains a casual relationship with a sort-of girlfriend, Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon), who also helps corroborate his alibies. He always leaves his room carrying a large ring of car keys, which he uses to jack other people's parked cars (apparently nobody locks their car doors in 1960's France). He is always dressed in a business jacket or trenchcoat and hat.

As an example of an early action movie, Le Samurai is sublime. Its pacing may seem slow by today's Michael Bay standards, but once you immerse yourself in the story, you won't notice that 100 minutes had passed. The movie opens on a lone figure laying on his bed, silently smoking a cigarette. A caption appears on the screen: "There is no solitude greater than the samurai's, unless perhaps it be that of a tiger in the jungle." (from a fictional Book of Bushido). It is 6 p.m., and our yet unnamed hero (?) gets up to leave his room. He steals a newly parked car outside his building and drives to a garage to get his plates changed, and to receive his new orders. He then visits Jane, tells her what time to expect him later that night, and finally stops by a poker (or some other card) game and informs his mates to save a place for him.

His contract is to kill the owner of a nightclub, Martey. He walks into Martey's, notices the jazz pianist (a radiant Cathy Rosier), surveys the crowd. Easily enough he walks around the joint to a door marked PRIVATE (in French) and confronts Martey. With a minimal exchange of words, Martey is shot dead (no idea why Jeff never used a silencer), and Valerie the pianist bumps into an exiting Costello, surely identifying him as the killer. After statements are given to the police (the suspect was wearing a trenchcoat and hat), Jeff is whisked off to the station for the identification line. His aliby sticks, and surprisingly he doesn't get identified by the nightclub employees, much to the chagrin of the chief inspector, played by Roger Fradet, who is convinced that he is the culprit.

This is where the beauty and kickassery begins! The film sets it up such that Alain Delon's character is one who is so precise and meticulous in his actions that he was never caught, never held for interrogation, never even been identified. His whole professional existence is based on anonymity, and this one slip-up changes the entire dynamic of the movie. This very paradigm shift is what sets his employers against him; they send another hitman to take him out. Not only is Costello dogged by his contractors, the police also are on his trail; they plant bugs, have surveillance on him and Jane, constantly tracking his movement. It is this external pressure that ultimately drives the plot for the second and third acts of the film.
The usage of themes in Le Samourai is also very sophisticated. One modern masterpiece this movie reminds me of is Children Of Men; time moves very fluidly in these films, the transition is from day to day, with nary any breaks in the narration. Hence you get the sense of urgency that Costello has up until the end, with action sequences that are entirely believable, whether it's disarming another hitman or losing a police tail. The pet bird is another plot device cleverly used by Melville: it gets agitated when people enter the apartment, and its excitement doesn't die down. When Costello notices the amount of feathers the bird loses from flapping its wings so fervently, he knows that something had been tampered with, or someone had broken in. In The Professional, Leon (the other awesome French hitman) kept a leafy plant; in Le Samourai, it's a bird. Either way, in their solitary lives, these two hitmen take their company from nonhuman means. I'm not really sure why that is (necessity to minimize contact, maybe?), but it is an interesting theme to utilize on the director's part. In a sense, I suppose the increasingly frenetic caged bird is a minor reflection of Costello's increasingly troubled loss of security and peace of mind.

The camera work is also a highlight of Le Samourai. Jean-Pierre Melville uses a variety of styles to capture even the simplest of movements. When Costello walks down an empty hall, he's silently followed from behind, before the camera switches to another one down the hall. In another scene, when Costello walks across a flyover to meet his contact, he walks a straight line completely parallel to a shadow of a powerline. I don't know whether that was intentional or not, but it helped cement the impression that this guy doesn't waste his energy at all; every move is deliberate. Another interesting theme in this movie was the solitude angle; when he's by himself the movie is completely silent, and when he walks down the street, it's almost always completely deserted.

Le Samourai has aged very well. Despite the glaring changes in technology today (nobody would plant bugs that size now!), everything about this film is still entirely believable. The acting is incredible. I didn't even know that Alain Delon was an actor (shows how much I know, right?), he is the very emodiment of BAD-ASS. The fedora and trenchcoat look, with the collar popped up? Yeah. He owned that look. Owned it.

If you haven't seen this movie yet, see it!

Also the new Cardinals album is awesome awesome awesome, this is a very alt-country year for me. 

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