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The American

Existential Paradoxes


Anton Corbjin’s The American isn’t a great film but it is a surprisingly interesting one for what we will call the quality of its metaphorical substance, for the manner in which it explores the problem of emotional commitment. It would make an intriguing companion piece to another recent George Clooney vehicle, Up in the Air: both are films about men who have lived without love and who now must find their soul after living soullessly.

Now if we decide to see the film as a plausible examination of an assassin’s life we will have the sort of problems Nick James has with the film when in Sight and Sound he talks of Jack’s (Clooney) love affair with the prostitute Clara (Violante Placido): “No question, Clara is spectacularly gorgeous, but that’s part of the problem. I don’t know if you get working girls who look like that in the small towns of the Abruzzo, but I’m sure if you do they don’t stay local for long.” James adds that “the chances of anyone in that profession being converted by a client’s sexual performance, as Clara is here, would be slim.” However, if we view the film as an existential account of one man’s attempt to find love in a world where he has lived not for Eros but Thanatos, not for love but for death, would a prostitute be the best person with whom he can find love? Though James believes it would be more plausible for fellow assassin Mathilde to be Jacks’s true love interest, as in other Cloney films, especially Up in the Air and Out of Sight, the film works with a sort of cognitive symmetry; that Jack is looking for someone who has some of the same emotional problems with trust as he would have. Clearly Mathilde could be the woman of his dreams because she might also be the subject of his nightmares (does she want to kill him?), but the prostitute he falls in love with must deal with the problem of trust also. When Jack finds a gun in her purse, he later enquires what it is doing there and she explains prostitution is a dangerous profession and indeed we’ve seen front page stories about their murder. Again James could have a problem with plausibility here; that the film is set in a small Italian town and yet prostitutes are getting killed off in the area with relatively little media or police presence, no matter if it is based more generally on an Italian murder case. And wouldn’t Clooney’s first response be to realise that is why she is carrying a gun; that it is extremely unlikely she would be involved with the people from his previous job in Sweden who are trying to kill him?

However, The American is not a plausible film but, as we’re suggesting, a film of metaphorical substance, a work that wants to find a useful metaphor for the problem of trust and the significance of love and one’s conscience. We never find out very much about Clooney’s past, nor even exactly why the Swedes are after him. What we do know is that at the beginning of the film Clooney takes out a woman he seems to have some feelings for, wary, it would appear, to let her live because of what she has witnessed after he kills a sniper. When afterwards he talks to his senior, the boss asks whether she was involved and he tells her that she was clearly innocent. It’s a killing that comes back to haunt his sleep, but we have no idea whether she is the first innocent he has killed. Later he does say to the priest that whatever he has done he has had a reason for doing it, but would the woman he kills at the beginning of the film be an example of this or the exception? He has his reasons for killing her even though she is innocent; presumably the other people he has killed over the years have been contract killings where he has taken out the guilty.

Yet all this remains essentially in the area of speculation, as though the film didn’t want to get dragged down by the specifics of back story, and wanted to concentrate on the minutiae of the slow emotions: guilt, responsibility, affection and regret. Though James and others have compared The American to the Bourne films, in The Bourne Identity Jason develops a relationship with someone on the basis of action, with the first ‘date’ a car chase through the Paris streets. Jack’s burgeoning affair with the prostitute focuses on stillness as internal rather than external threat. We might think of the scene where Jack and Clara go down by the river, a spot so private no one else goes there – except for earlier in the film with Jack and Mathilde finding a quiet spot as they talk weaponry. Jack and Clara’s moment is romantic idyll meeting paranoid fantasy, with Jack pulling a gun out when he sees Clara going into her bag. Where in The Bourne Identity we have the fast feelings of the adrenaline rush and the consequent sexual encounter; here we have dread and desire: a sense that a lover may carry a lethal price and that Jack has lived his entire life unable to accept readily such an encounter. Where Bourne is ruthlessly amnesiac (as he finds he is capable of acts of violence beyond his ken), Jack is all memory. Bourne is not sure if he can fall in love because he doesn’t know who he is; Jack knows exactly who he happens to be, and cannot see anyone’s actions without also seeing the threat they may possess. Clara’s simple gesture of going into her handbag creates a wonderful moment of anxiety within tenderness. He is sitting by the lake watching the naked Clara, but he is also wondering if she is in cahoots with the Swedes and about to kill him.

It is partly the interest in the slow emotions that can lead us to invoking Michael Mann and Jean-Pierre Melville. While many an action films has slow moments that allow for the development of love interest, there is in Corbjin’s film a mood hanging over it that doesn’t so much create space for love interest as demand it. Like Robert De Niro’s character in Mann’s Heat and Alain Delon’s in Melville’s Le Samourai, here is a character finding love as existential crisis. Now usually a love interest is not existentially problematic; one absorbs it readily into one’s life and refuses it priority, as Steve McQueen does in Bullitt, so that the affair with Jacqueline Bisset becomes an emotionally tender hiatus in a brutal world; or as Keanu Reeves does in Speed where Reeves and Sandra Bollack bond through task accomplishment: an act of adversary bonding that can create a couple. In the existential action film however, love creates a crisis in being. Everybody remembers the key scene in the diner in Heat between De Niro and Pacino, where De Niro says one has to be ready to leave everything behind in thirty seconds; but that is exactly what he is unable to do when he falls in love with Amy Brenneman’s character. In Le Samourai it seems that Delon falls coup de foudre with the very woman he must kill if he is to sustain his identity as a successful hit man. After she witnesses the assassination, Delon lets her live, which leads eventually to his own death as he returns to her in the club with an empty chamber in his gun, accepting his own fate as the cops gun him down. It is even as though the filmmakers are all drawing on the same colour palette – each film is working off shades of blue as if trying to capture visually the melancholy of the inevitable.

In each instance – in The American, Heat and Le Samourai – the love is not merely interest but preoccupation; an existential crisis point where the assumptions of personality must unravel. If in a film like Bullitt McQueen accepts that the brutal environment in which he works as a San Francisco copper cannot let him love, and in Speed the couple can be generated smoothly out of the action, in The American Jack’s past comes back to haunt him in a manifold manner. This isn’t only the problem of the woman he kills coming back in his nightmares, but also the issue of trust, honesty and hope in the present. Before the end of the film he wants to build a future with Clara, but on what ground can that future really be built? It is as though they are hoping to do so by believing that two wrongs can make a right: that two problematic pasts, based on her instance on false emotions and his on hiding them, can make a hopeful future. In one scene in the brothel Jack says he doesn’t want her to act out a role for him; he is paying for the real woman. When they bump into each other at a café, they agree to another meeting, but this time not in the usual place, but to go on a proper date.

One may notice that the relationship with Clara forces upon Jack an active ethos just as the priest forces upon him a passive one. If his feelings for Clara makes him realize the importance of truth emotionally; his conversations with the priest makes him aware of his conscience. He might say at one moment that God has no interest in him, but the priest does; and Jack cannot help but go to the priest as if trying to confess; just as he cannot help but go to Clara to feel. Now it would seem up until this point in his life Jack has no reason to confess; no reason to feel. This is speculation forced upon us by the absence of back story. While some might insist that any such speculation is beyond the diegesis and should be ignored, we may reply that its eschewal leaves us making certain assumptions about that very absence. Has Jack been married, had kids, lived a stable life before becoming an assassin? We don’t know, and yet if all this were the case we probably would know – it would become pertinent to his present existential crisis. Their absence we must assume leaves us believing that he is one of life’s solitary figures who has over the years lived for himself and against others.

Such a character perhaps needs to live aesthetically rather than ethically or emotionally if we think of a passage from Nietzsche where he talks of ‘Needful Things’, of “giving style to one’s character – a great and rare art!” “Such spirits – and they be of the first rank – are always out to interpret themselves and their environment as free nature – wild, arbitrary, fantastic, disorderly, astonishing; and they will do well because only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold.” Jack undeniably appears to have given style to his life, and the romantic idyll at the beginning of the film in the cabin, with the log fire and the wine, we realise is not the burgeoning of love, but the style of romance. The tragedy for Jack when he shortly afterwards puts a bullet through her head isn’t that he has killed someone he loves, but that he has killed an innocent. She is surplus to his emotional requirements, no matter the style he gives to the occasion of their lovemaking and the modest feelings he presumably has for her.

But it is clearly love he feels for Clara, and it is as though the priest’s probing, and Clara’s feelings towards him, erode the existential certainties, leaving him simultaneously redefining who he is, trying to escape from what he was, and dealing in the present with those who are still chasing the old Jack. There are perhaps two interconnected questions concerning the loner that come out of this. One is the problem of a self that is fixed both internally and externally; the other the problem of how to alter that fixed self internally and externally. Initially when talking to the priest Jack’s purpose is to hide who is as he insists he is a travel photographer while he holds to an idea of himself where he cannot reveal his true identity; yet still feeling the need to talk as he searches out the spiritual. When it comes to the prostitute it is more the other way round: he wants initially to seek out the physical. But of course the sexual in turn becomes the spiritual as they fall in love, and he cannot remain existentially singular. Externally, though, he has set in motion what he can no longer easily control. The Swedes are catching up with him, and so what we have is a twofold loss of control where the very purpose of the existential loner is the capacity for controlling his emotions and controlling his life. Now with his love for Clara, the uneasiness of his conscience, and his enemies catching up with him, he is, in an existential sense, out of control: he cannot quite control his thoughts, feelings and his environment. But usually the existential loner film doesn’t see this as a bad thing, but rather as the opportunity to release false consciousness for real feeling, or rather accept the limitations of the self for the possibilities in being with others. It may end tragically in Heat, Le Samurai and The American, but it also fits into a first principle of existence taking into account Freud’s ideas on attachment and love, where he talks of “the long period of time during which the young of the human species is in a condition of helplessness and dependence. Its intrauterine existence seems to be short in comparison with that of most animals…the biological factor, then, establishes the earliest situations of danger and creates the need to be loved, which will accompany the child through the rest of its life.” The existential loner tries to live as though he was never helpless and dependent, and this is perhaps why, to mix our mythologies, cupid’s arrow becomes his Achilles heel. Love doesn’t conquer all; it conquers him. He has not set his life up to incorporate it and accept it.

This is what gives The American its existential singularity, and yet also, and not at all paradoxically, its fatalistic dimension. It is Jack’s very existential singularity that creates the fatalistic inevitability of his death.  He has organised his life so that love cannot be anything but a problem, where of course most people organise their lives to allow for its ready incorporation: they accept, on Freud’s terms, the “need to be loved” over the “situations of danger”, where the existential figure usually reverses this. In Camus’ A Happy Death a woman says to the central character Meursault, “But if you’re happy here, why are you leaving?”, Meursault replies, “There’s a risk of being loved, little Catherine, and that would keep me from being happy,” and then offers the woman advice about how to be alone. “Don’t just wait for a man to come along. That’s the mistake so many women make. Find your happiness in yourself.”

But what happens if one eventually finds one’s happiness in another, and yet cannot live that happiness because the life one has chosen to live makes it impossible? In Nietzche’s words this would be the opportunity to “Die at the right time”. “Many Die too late, and a few die too early.” But while Jack’s death is romantically untimely, it is existentially appropriate. His death is like a consummation, and an awareness of the impossibility of love and the inevitability of mortality. It is the tragic demise of one who finds love too late and cannot live it as the existential film segues into the impossible romance, from Casablanca to The English Patient. However, where in the impossible romance circumstances and other emotional entanglements often make the romance difficult, in the existential film it is usually a problem of the central character’s own making in the process of making himself. It is his singularity that has kept him single, and the consequences of that singledom which leads to his death. Jack is not a character looking for love, but someone for whom love is an accident he cannot quite avoid. It may be true that he is ready for it, ready in the sense of needing some assuagement in his life after killing an innocent, but that is part of the film’s tragedy: that he is ready emotionally for an experience that his own past actions cannot allow to end happily ever after. Unhappily ever after is more like it, and such is the fate of the existential loner when love comes a calling.


©Tony McKibbin