Tuesday 1 July 2008

Le Samourai (The Samurai) [1967]

Considered by many as a definitive exploration of cloak-and-dagger tales and a restrained existentialist probing into the life of a contract killer, Le Samourai, directed by one of the stalwarts of French Nouvelle Vague Movement (though not as universally recognized) – Jean-Pierre Melwille, the movie follows a professional hitman’s slow decline from glory thanks to a minor blemish in an otherwise efficient assassination job at a Parisian nightclub. The blemish (in this case a fatal mistake) of course is that he has mixed pleasure (read 'heart') with work. The lucid narration, the minimalist set-pieces, the languid pacing, the evocative camera work, the subtle stylization, the storytelling that is more lyrical than taut (in a masterful genre-bending move), and a memorable anti-climax filled with irony and detached emotion, made this quite an engaging watch despite the plot holes. The obvious intent here is, style over substance, though not in a pejorative sense. This acclaimed French post-noir has been referred to by John Woo as closest to the mythical “perfect movie”.

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Genre: Post-Noir/Crime Thriller/Existential Drama/Gangster Movie
Language: French
Country: France


Ed Howard said...

Nice review of a great film. It's the template for Jim Jarmusch's wonderful and overlooked Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai, along with countless other movies about gangster cool.

One minor correction though: Melville wasn't really part of the Nouvelle Vague. He belonged to the generation before them, and by the time most of the New Wave filmmakers started making their debuts, Melville already had 5 features under his belt. He obviously knew the Cahiers critics, and his appearance in Godard's Breathless was a tribute to someone Godard viewed as an older influence, very similar to the appearances of Sam Fuller and Fritz Lang in his later films. Melville is one of the Nouvelle Vague's obvious ancestors, even if some of the younger filmmakers (Rivette, Truffaut) had at best ambivalent feelings about some of his films.

Shubhajit said...

Thanks Ed. This is indeed a very good film - a classic case of an otherwise mundane plot being taken to great heights by the skill of the director.

I appreciate your pointing me out about the Nouvelle Vague aspect. Correct me if i'm wrong, but as far as i understand, Melville is considered to be a part of the movement not because he actively championed its causes or was one of its founders. Rather he was an implicit part of it because of artistic & stylistic aspects (auteur theory), & for being one of its forebearers.

Ed Howard said...

Fair enough. Melville is definitely stylistically related to the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers -- he influenced them and then, some would argue, was influenced by them in turn for his later films.

I generally consider the Nouvelle Vague core to consist of just Rohmer, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, and Rivette. You could make a strong case for adding Malle as well. There was also the separate but contemporaneous "Left Bank" movement of Resnais, Varda, Marker, etc. A lot of people don't realize that the Nouvelle Vague refers to a very specific set of filmmakers, using it to refer to everything coming out of France in the early 60s. There were a lot of filmmakers in France at that time who were making interesting, original films, and there was quite a bit of cross-pollination between all these different groups and individuals, but strictly speaking the Nouvelle Vague term really only applies to five or six auteurs.

Shubhajit said...

I'll have to agree with you on that. The Nouvelle Vague, strictly speaking, consisted of 5 or 6 filmmakers, led by Godard & Truffaut, who all made the transition from Cashier critics to auteurs. Melville wasn't an explicit part of it per se. And as you stated, just because someone is French, was active during that era, and had stylistic/thematic resemblance to the movement, doesn't necessarily qualify him as part of the movement. But, on the contrary, even though 5 or 6 filmmakers started the cause, it similarly doesn't mean that the movement is restricted to them. Once any movement or era or cause is kick-started, i feel it ceases to remain a local phenomenon, confined to those individuals, any more. Anyone who chooses to embrace it with all its ideologies and nuances, in more ways than one, become a part of it.

Shawn William Clarke said...

Well, Neuvelle Vague or not, Le Samourai is a great, challenging film. I did enjoy reading your comments though, very informative.

Shubhajit said...

Thanks a lot Shawn for the appreciation.