Sunday, July 08, 2007

In Brief: Le Samouraï

The Siren was oversold on Le Samouraï, not by any critic, but by the Jean-Pierre Melville movies she saw previously. Having seen Un Flic, which she thought pretty good, Bob le Flambeur, which she thought excellent, and L'Armée des Ombres, which she thought a masterpiece, the Siren was all in a tizzy to Netflix this classic. Le Samouraï, after a patently phony epigraph, opens with a long shot of Alain Delon, barely visible on the bed in a dirty Parisian flat, smoke from his cigarette gathering above his head. And there was this squeak in the background, and the Siren tried to figure out what it reminded her of, until she thought, "Damn. That sounds like the windmill in Once Upon a Time in the West." It's Delon's pet bird, but the association really, really should have warned her. This movie is a cerebrally paced, meticulously framed, fantastically good-looking stiff. The Siren admired its stark construction but it was an endurance test, 105 minutes that felt twice as long as L'Armée did at 145.

In interviews Melville suggested that Jef, a hired assassin and the "samurai" of the title, is schizophrenic, but crazy people are usually livelier than this, at least in the movies. Somewhere around the time Jef got nicked by a bullet the Siren realized there was never going to be a point where she gave two hoots in hell about him. Instead she found herself looking at Delon's face, dour and unchanging in shot after shot, and remembering the verdict of his ex-lover Brigitte Bardot: "Alain is beautiful, but so is my Louis XVI commode." Nathalie Delon (married to Alain at the time) and Cathy Rosier, both gorgeous, apparently had the same acting coach as the star. The police chief (François Périer) was the Siren's favorite. He cracks jokes and has facial expressions.

The Siren can understand the admiration for the steel-colored perfection of Le Samouraï's look. But watching Delon dart around the Metro, in fear for his life, left her as cold as Harry Lime looking down from the Ferris wheel. The Siren has resigned herself to more lonely iconoclasm, but she did find this. Merci, M. Rosenbaum, for expressing a few reservations. And apologies to Girish.

Above left (click to enlarge): Alain Delon, right three-quarters view; Alain Delon, left three-quarters view; Alain Delon looks at a gun; Alain Delon looks at Cathy Rosier; Cathy Rosier looks at Alain Delon. Special bonus: Compare the second shot with this snap of the Delons' son. Joie de vivre runs in the family.

The Siren likes Delon in other movies, particularly Purple Noon, Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard. Good takes on the actor to be found at Cinebeats and Sunset Gun. Kimberly of Cinebeats is a Delon expert, having put together a very groovy fan site for him, which is archived here.


Kimberly Lindbergs said...

It's hard to respond to your post since I love this film with a passion and it has one of all-time favorite openings. It would easily top any "best of" of "favorites" list I compiled. I will say that I think Delon is perfect in it. He's supposed to be a heartless, empty and possibly crazy killer and his cold lifeless performance is perfect for the character of Jef Costello in my opinion.

Have you ever seen an interview with a serial killer? They're almost always completely empty vessels who are totally disconnected from reality. I don't believe viewers are supposed to sympathize with Delon's character. We are there as quiet witnesses much like Cathy Rosier and Nathalie Delon.

Of course, I also love Once Upon a Time in the West so it's really just a matter of different strokes (or in this case, different films) for different folks really.

I don’t know if I'm a Delon expert (the word expert scare me!) but I could talk about him forever and I probably will. ;)

The Siren said...

I probably should have fleshed this out a bit more to make myself more clear. I don't think Delon is bad, given the parameters of his character; I am sure he is playing the role as Melville intended. I honestly don't think the film is bad, either. It, and Delon, just bored me to tears. I could not connect with anything on any level. Even its visuals palled after a while. I know how high the movie's reputation is, so I seriously considered not writing about it due to the fact that my dislike probably wasn't going to go down well. But if I am going to blog, I don't want to pretend I enjoyed something when actually it made me want to go finish mending my hems.

I should add that a lot of admirers of Le Samourai do seem to find Jef, however heartless and empty, to be the epitome of cool. Which he is, in a sense, if you define cool as the absence of observable emotion. (I think of Steve McQueen as cool, but not James Dean--Dean was incredibly dynamic and charismatic, but not cool to me. He had too much boiling passion for that.) Now that I have seen the movie I can certainly see how it influenced Tarantino, Woo and Jarmusch.

Hope that all makes sense. Thanks for the polite response; it is always hard when someone dislikes something you love, harder I think than when someone loves something you dislike!

Derek said...

I understand your reticence re: Delon's reticence, and honestly can extend my own to Bob le flambeur, though I loved it on first viewing. (Actually, I think I loved Isabelle Corey on first viewing.) But recently I showed a double feature on French Heist Noir at my humble community film society (I'll be blogging on just how humble the "society" is in the future). I paired it with Rififi, and Bob seemed unpleasantly aloof by comparison. Heist movies are about tension, no?

The Siren said...

Derek, in a weird way Bob was more of a character study than a heist picture to me. While he is an aging professional criminal, a career choice most of us do not identify with, the whole movie had a great deal to do with the compromises of late middle age. Certainly Rififi has more plot-drive suspense (as does The Asphalt Jungle, for that matter).

Bob Westal said...

I've only seen it once, but I did find it a bit tough going at times, though I think I loved the ending quite a bit. In fact, I find all of the Melville films I've seen so far, "Army of Shadows" included, a frustrating mix of sheer brilliance alternating with sheer slowness to varying degrees. It helps to be in a receptive mood, and not be watching it as part of a double bill.

I remember seeing "Le Doulous" about 12 years back and being incredibly bored, despite the gorgeous visuals. Up until a plot twist in the last thirty minutes. It had gone from being one of the most boring films I'd seen in awhile to one of the most exciting, almost out of nowhere.

The Siren said...

See, with Army of Shadows I was hooked from beginning to end, found nothing in it monotonous at all, and I think the difference for me was in the main characters. Why certain films bore certain people, why others do not, might be worth a post at some point. Why did I sit through nine Naruse films in Toronto without a single moment's boredom, and yet I had to force myself to finish this one?

mndean said...

I didn't have as much trouble with Le Samourai (it was rather slow and I would never buy it, but I would watch it again someday) though I think your view on Delon's character is well taken. I have had problems with other Melville - I tried hard to slog through Le Doulos twice...and fell asleep each time long before the end.

Marilyn said...

Y'know, it's been a while since I saw Le Samourai, but I remember really liking it. The opening scene is touching, set the standard for hitmen films to come (e.g., Leon [The Professional]) and had a kind of Godard feeling to it. On the other hand, I tried to watch Le Flic a few weeks ago and turned it off in complete boredom.

Operator_99 said...

For those with an interest in or passion for Melville's work, and if you live in or around the Big Apple, the Film Forum, Houston and 7th, is screening Le Doulos until July 19th. It is actually held over. We went last week and despite a few plot gripes, thoroughly enjoyed it. The FF page has a good review that appeared in the Village Voice. Hope you can make it there.

Vince said...

I'm an unabashed Melville partisan, but I have to confess I find Le Samouraï to be my least favorite of his films. It's the only one where coolness seems, at times, to be the sole point of the exercise. Naturally, it's his most influential film.

If you're not all Melvilled out, may I suggest Le Cercle Rouge? It, too, is a long film, but one with a lot on its mind.

The Siren said...

Mndean & Operator, I haven't seen Le Doulos but reading up on it, I think I will wait. :)

Marilyn, I can definitely see how Samourai influenced Leon, and a number of other movies too. I am quite glad I saw this movie, I just don't want to see it again (please, no!)

Vince, thanks for the affirmation. I saw Le Cercle Rouge right after Le Samourai and did indeed enjoy it a lot more than Le Samourai. There were some extremely funny lines (Delon suggesting that having an ex-cop and a prison guard in on the plot might be "a little much," Montand blandly asserting that he never drinks). Montand's DT scene almost forced me to sleep with the lights on.

Richard Gibson said...

'Le Samourai' was the first Jean Pierre-Melville film I ever saw. For a while it was the only one you could get on VHS here, so for me it has a special place in my memory.
However I saw 'Army in the Shadows' and thought it was superior. I just oredered, but haven't watched yet 'Le Silence de la mer'.

Anonymous said...

I see that knocking "Le Samourai" has become the highbrow equivalent of, say, Jeffrey Wells demonstrating his intellectual superiority by registering his indifference to "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." Nothing one can really say in either case except, well, good for you if you really feel that way. So long.

The Siren said...

Glenn, I am quite genuinely sorry this piece irked you so badly. Indeed it was not supposed to demonstrate anything other than my compulsion to be honest about whether or not I like a film, even when it is widely and ardently admired. Certainly I don't consider myself particularly highbrow! Did you read the entire comments thread, including my reply to Cinebeats? I think that part of the problem is that I wrote this piece very short, because to be honest I did not like the film well enough to go on about it at length. That gives more of an impression of snarkiness than I meant to.

I liked the other Melvilles I saw. Just not this one.