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09 February 2008 @ 15:25
Le Samouraï  
Le Samouraï


French director Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 film Le Samouraï is a simple, stylish crime thriller that nods at classic Hollywood film noir. Starring Alain Delon, the film is a minimalist affair that teeters between being artfully restrained and just tediously slow. Delon plays contract killer Jef Costello, who is one of a number of suspects arrested for the murder of a nightclub owner that Costello kills at the beginning of the film. Roped into the affair are Jef's girlfriend Jane (played by Delon's then-wife, Nathalie Delon), her other boyfriend/sugar daddy Mr. Wiener, the beautiful nightclub pianist that sees Jef leave the scene of the crime, and a slew of other nightclub employee witnesses.

Le Samouraï


Delon, like Brad Pitt and Jude Law after him, was a blindingly good-looking leading man who deliberately sought darker roles to avoid being typecast as a handsome romantic hero. In Jef, Delon is cast as a seemingly emotionless anti-hero, a role that banishes any thought of him as a pretty-boy matinee idol. Jef is meant to be a samurai-type figure, a trained killer who operates with clean precision and his own code of honour. As Jef, Delon maintains such an impenetrable air of icy calm and remains so expressionless that, for the first half of the film, I wasn't entirely sure if his performance was superbly executed efficieny or just stiff. But there's a moment in the second half when Jef breaks from his hyper-even keel and strikes with such astonishing razor-sharpness that obliterated any trace of doubt that this wasn't a masterful performance by Delon. It also really helps that with his ice blue eyes, sharp trenchcoat and fedora, Delon is an impeccable figure of cool. Melville fills the screen with shades of steely grey that enhance the stark, spare mood of the film. There was something strangely beautiful about Jef's decrepit grey flat, a touch of bleak romance largely achieved by the significant birdcage that's one of the only adornments.

Le Samouraï


Despite the polished visuals and Delon's undeniable cool, Le Samouraï suffers because the focus on the crime procedural element isn't actually that compelling. There's definitely an interesting tension in the witnesses' operating by their own agendas and the police's frustrated attempts to nail Jef, and it's always intriguing to watch a story that casts the killer as the protagonist. But there was so much left unexplored - what was the nature of Jane and Jef's relationship? Jane and Mr. Wiemar? What's the story behind the mysterious pianist? What about the biggest enigma of all, Jef? - and while the air of mystery serves the minimalistic style well, it felt like there wasn't enough depth to the story to keep me interested, especially when Delon was offscreen. Nevertheless, if you're willing to sit through 105 minutes of slow-paced cat-and-mouse, Le Samouraï has a few worthwhile rewards, not the least of which being Delon's strikingly controlled performance.
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stockdove on 11th February 2008 16:04 (UTC)
I think film noir is a genre that often works as a study in existentialism, which can be incredibly frustrating and even tedious to watch. For me, interest in a film skyrockets as soon as I become involved in the characters' personal stories - their relationships, their ambitions, their unique ideas, etc. When all of that becomes basically erased and made pointless in a way it's a lot less fun. Of course, that's where the "message" of the film might come in. We're not supposed to enjoy the starkness and coldness of the anti-hero's life and that might be the whole point. I think it's pretty rare that this kind of inhumanity is actually supported by the film maker. Mostly though, I prefer to watch films that don't unsettle and alienate the viewer so much just to prove a point. There's always exceptions and some of the most amazing and powerful movies do just that, but it's always great when you can get your message across (in a subtle manner of course :) ) AND make the film heartily enjoyable to watch.
(Anonymous) on 12th February 2008 04:09 (UTC)
A film can be compelling without being pleasurable
You are right I think that one point of forgoing personal stories is to produce a sense of alienation within the viewer. But treating as inconsequential characters' own ambitions and ideas is an effective way to render persons as functions of the circumstances they find themselves. It is important there are films that reflect this all too human experience of powerlessness and attempt to think through it, however uncomfortable it leaves us viewers feeling. Granted, Melville's existentialist ideas arise out of the traumatizing effect of the German occupation in the early forties (see his masterpiece L'Armée des Ombres) and do come off rather awkwardly in the late sixties.

-Alex
emeraldcloche on 13th February 2008 01:00 (UTC)
Re: A film can be compelling without being pleasurable
Haha, here I am blathering on about Alain Delon and people are getting all philosophical on me.
I agree that this approach of viewer alienation is effective, and I don't have an objection to the approach Melville took with Le Samourai. I just thought that when Delon wasn't onscreen, the spell was broken, and the film sagged and felt like a second-rate police procedural and I started to lose interest.
(Anonymous) on 14th February 2008 05:01 (UTC)
Re: A film can be compelling without being pleasurable
I entirely appreciate your point. Thanks for another excellent review.

-Alex
emeraldcloche on 14th February 2008 17:06 (UTC)
Re: A film can be compelling without being pleasurable
Thank you for reading!