It’s got to be difficult to be French, hasn’t it? What do they call “film noir” for instance? “Black Cinema” just doesn’t cut it. And you can see why they’d want to reclaim the term for the French movie industry, but when the French try to make a native film noir, it always ends up looking, forgive me, a little too French.
This crass overgeneralization comes as a result of having watched Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 movie Le Samouraï over the weekend. It has Alain Delon, with fedora, trench coat, gun, and occasionally white gloves, being extraordinarily insouciant and Gallically engaging, but also utterly unconvincing as an assassin. You’re not sure if you want to hit him or kiss him – I’ll bet he gets a lot of that.
Even David Thomson, in the handy little booklet that comes with the DVD, has his reservations. He calls the movie great but says it’s “poised on the brink of absurdity, or a kind of attitudizining male arrogance.” Some of course might say it’s gone over the brink. But it does have a fair amount of elegant walking in it.
The movie is famous, at least in some quarters, because of a brilliantly original chase scene, not involving cars but using the Paris Metro. In a book titled Atlas of Emotion Giuliana Bruno makes a great deal of this subway chase. She writes, “from the ruins of film noir, a story about mapping emerges ... Here, we engage in the very flux of psychogeography. Our hero knows his city “intimately”; that is, he knows all its inner workings. He has internalized the subway map … So familiar is streetwise Delon with this map that he can move jointly with it.”
Well yes, OK, sort of. Ms. Bruno is also responsible for a book titled Streetwalking On a Ruined Map – which is a title so wonderful that I’m not sure any book could ever possibly live up to it.
It’s pretty hard, for me anyway, to watch Le Samouraï and not think of Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville, made a couple of years earlier, which is also “poised on the brink of absurdity” but it helps a lot that Eddie Constantine looks more like a bullfrog than a pretty boy. It’s a long time since I saw it, and I wish I remembered it better, and to be honest I can’t tell you whether it involves much walking or not. But if the stills are to believed there’s certainly some film noir strutting and posing, and I dare say some attitudizining male arrogance.
And finally a more or less current picture of M. Delon. Still walking, still French, but just a little less insouciant.