If ever there was a director who understood cool it certainly was Jean-Pierre Melville!
Written By: Jean-Pierre Melville & Georges Pellegrin
Directed By: Jean-Pierre Melville
Don’t let my opening tease fool you, I don’t mean cool in quite the way that sentence implies. The film making on display in Le Samouraï is the epitome of cool. At the same time Alain Delon plays Jef Costello as a rather cool character. Why then am I squabbling over my own usage of the word cool? I don’t think Jean-Pierre Melville likes the character of Jef Costello all that much. He shows the character as detached and removed from the vestiges we most often associate with humanity. I believe that Monsieur Melville knew that most people would watch the actions of Jef and with Mr. Delon portraying the character view him as the ultimate version of cool. Monsieur Melville turned these expectations on his audience by delivering a character who is too cold for his own good. The very human notion of sentimentality has no place in the world of Jef and that is ultimately the reason for his downfall.
That’s not to say that Monsieur Melville doesn’t absolutely love the world that Jef inhabits. The cold blues and detached grays that color Le Samouraï speak to the amount of love Monsieur Melville has for the classic world of the Hollywood gangster. It’s that sense of love that allows the world created for Le Samouraï to be so alive while its characters speak so very little. Actions speak louder than words in Le Samouraï, it’s telling that a word of dialogue isn’t spoken until ten minutes into the film. The characters in Le Samouraï don’t need to speak but when they do what they say carries a lot of import. The way that the characters manage their facial expressions, the way they walk, and the places they choose to inhabit give the film all the story it needs. Monsieur Melville loves the world of Le Samouraï, he loves every inch of its surface and his loving attention to that world shines through in every cool blue frame of the film.
Getting back to the idea of detachment and how it relates to the reality outside of the film. There is a heavy thematic point of loneliness and detachment to be found in Le Samouraï. I couldn’t help but feel this was an expression of the loneliness and detachment Monsieur Melville feels from the world he created for the film. He wants to be a part of that world but he can’t and his knowledge that he can’t is also responsible for the detachment of his characters. Monsieur Melville has shown a love for the world of underground crime throughout his career. His characters never share his love, they are always just people doing their jobs and living their lives. It is only through these characters that Monsieur Melville can come close to the world he loves, but he never comes close enough to live in that world, like his characters he always remains detached.
I haven’t seen enough of Jean-Pierre Melville’s career to label Le Samouraï as his career defining film. Of the films I have seen so far from Monsieur Melville this is the film that does best encapsulate the ideas he has tried to put forth. The cold world of Le Samouraï is the gangster world of Hollywood as envisioned by director in complete control of his craft. His fingerprints are on every second of Le Samouraï, it is a joy to watch a film where a director has such a sure hand about where he wants the film to go at every turn. Le Samouraï is a cool film, full of cool blues and cool characters living in a cool world. Le Samouraï lacks the sort of irony that would be found in this film were it in the hands of another, lesser director. No, the film retains its detached sense of cool because of how straight Monsieur Melville and company are willing to be, and that is hwy Monsieur Melville is a master of his craft.
I really like your review here. In watching it, I could not but be overwhelmed by the coolness of it all, especially Delon. But I never asked myself what Melville was saying about the coolness. Thanks, you’ve prepared me for my next viewing of the film.
I’m always thankful when people let me know my thoughts on a film have given them reason to think about the film some more next time they watch it. 🙂