The Destiny of Mise-en-Scene
Is the world governed by chance or by fate is the sort of baggy question that serves little purpose as a query looking for an answer, but can be useful when trying to make sense of a particular film or filmmaker's work. Jean-Pierre Melville, according to critic Roy Armes in his book French Cinema, "has no interest in the realistic portrayal of life as it is and disregards both psychological depth and accuracy of location and costume." Melville's may also be a world that destroys the dichotomous question of chance or fate, as if both of them fall curiously under the category of the mechanistic. But surely the mechanistic suggests the inevitable; where chance indicates the contingent. However, as philosopher Gilles Deleuze once proposed, "whenever one believes in a great first principle, one cannot any longer produce anything but huge sterile dualisms." So our questions needn't be so big; we can ask no more than what is it that makes a number of Melville's films - and none more so than Le Samourai - so tight, so airless, so unwilling to let life into the frame?
Central to it is the focus on plot logic, a rarer concern than we might at first think. Often plot logic is subordinated into plot socio-logic, or plot psycho-logic, and it is the emphasis on one or the other that dilutes plot logic for other concerns. How Melville may have asked can I make films that are like fables, which leave the characters without options. A way of getting a handle on his work, and on the film we'll focus on here, Le Samourai, is to think of a Jean Cocteau story where a young Persian gardener asks his prince to save him after meeting Death in the garden that morning. The prince offers him his swiftest horse, and the gardener goes to far off Isphahan. In the afternoon the prince comes face to face with death and asks why Death had given his gardener such a menacing look. Death says it wasn't menacing; it was the look of surprise. He was going to take the gardener in Isphahan later that night.
What Melville offers in Le Samourai is a paradoxical work. It is in many ways not only a fatalistic fable, a la Cocteau, is it also an existential piece about a man who trusts nothing but his own instincts: he lives alone in a small apartment with a bird in a cage. When he visits his some time lover, he asks her to serve as his alibi. Jef (Alain Delon) wants Jane (Nathalie Delon) to claim he was there between seven at night and one forty five in the morning - her 'official' lover will be arriving at two - and though he won't be staying, she's grateful for any hint of recognition. It is the only time he needs anything from her, she says, and says it not resentfully, but lovingly. She admires this man who cannot give himself to another, and yet does he even give himself to himself? "Lend yourself to others but keep yourself to yourself" Montaigne proposed. But does Jef Costello do no more than lend himself to himself? An existential perspective would seem to suggest two things: the centrality of one's own consciousness, and the anxiety of choice. Yet Costello in other ways seems the opposite of the existentialist, and gives the impression that his consciousness is limited to the immediate world around him, and that his world is without anxiety because it has so few options. The film follows Costello who's been hired as a hit-man to kill a club boss, and then finds himself hounded by both the suspicious police and the people who've hired the hit who know the police are on his tail. Costello needs to escape the police while at the same time chasing the killers who are chasing him.
A more socio-logical or psycho-logical film would create hassles and this is where the film very much differs from loosely similar American movies like Michael Mann's Thief and Heat. Where Mann wants to show men caught in binds of love as they fight for existential self-definition in their professional lives, Melville shows a man with a hassle free existence, as if he were genuinely born yesterday. During a police line up the opportunity for back story is promptly eschewed: where other characters in the line up have their pasts detailed by the police due to their criminal records, Costello has a clean bill of legal health. It's almost like a joke on back story: the perfect opportunity plausibly to offer it, and Melville shows Costello has no past to give.
If this avoids back story; what about psychology? Again, when someone asks the inspector what he thinks of Costello, the inspector replies "I never think". Where Mann in Thief divulges his central character's motivations in a key scene with James Caan's lover Tuesday Weld in a diner, as Caan quite literally shows her a mosaic of what he believes will be his perfect life, offering up his future as well as explaining his jailbird past, Costello has neither baggage in his past nor an idealized future. He is a man not so much without qualities as possessed of only one: he lives in the moment. His motivation, such as it is, is not temporal - it is spatial. As he builds himself a decent alibi to justify why he couldn't have been the one to kill the nightclub boss, he returns to his girlfriend's apartment block just so that her apparently sugar daddy lover will subliminally remember him: as he arrives in the building Jef will seem to be leaving. When the lover is interviewed to say what time he arrived at Jane's apartment, he is also asked if he remembers a man exiting it, and in the line up he recognizes Jef.
This is self as mise-en-scene, as Jef is someone who comprehends himself much more as a figure in space than a being in time. Melville announces this from the very first image: in an extreme long shot the director shows us a figure lying on the bed, a bird in a cage, and wafts of smoke coming from the figure we can barely see. Throughout, the film emphasises less Delon's good looks than his architectural aspect. Melville isn't interested in Delon's eyes (except in a key moment we will explain later), which generally remain hooded, but his cheekbones and jawline. It as though there are parts of the body that reveal the soul and others that offer up determination. In this film almost devoid of bright colours - a little red in the seats of a car Delon steals; a few dashes of red again in the apartment of the nightclub singer near the end of the film - Melville generates a cinematic space consistent with Delon's self. This is a life without luxury or pleasure: almost all that we expect to make us human is alleviated. Even the presence of the beautiful young Jane, whom he uses as an alibi, serves little more purpose than that. There may be a moment or two of tenderness, but Jef offers it more as the dutiful decency of a man for someone who has stuck by him than with any hint of passionate embrace.
But then what would we expect when we have a cold filmmaker working with a cold actor? Where would the warmth conceivably come from? Yet there is often in Melville's work, just as in Delon's as an actor, possible warmth in the coldness: a kind of gangster who came in from the cold dimension. We see it in the Delon/Melville film Un Flic, where Delon's cop carries a flame for Deneuve, who's the partner of his nemesis Richard Crenna, and is it not present in Melville's Le Doulos, where Belmondo looks to escape the criminal world and into love? But these are more mediated films than Le Samourai, and if many critics (including Roy Armes) believe Le Samourai is Melville's masterpiece, it resides in this unmediated aspect: the gangster stripped bare. However if this is true what are we to make of the film's ending and Jef's possible feelings for the beautiful black nightclub singer? As he prepares to shoot her we see his eyes looking at her longingly, and Melville, who has generally played up Delon's firm bone structure, now plays up his youth. As Jef stands in front of her and she tells him that he shouldn't have come, Jef gazes at her as if to take one last look at this woman who may finally have broken that determined will. From the first moment he set eyes on her has he not been in danger of not merely lending himself to another but giving himself to someone else? As he leaves the room in the club, at the beginning of the film, where he's just shot the owner, he sees the singer/pianist in the corridor and decides not to shoot - an assassin does not usually leave a witness, and Jef hardly gives the impression of incompetence. He seems to be a veteran killer and yet, as we've noted, possesses no criminal record. Is this a curious form of coup de foudre -a love at first sight that leads to one's own demise; if looks could kill is no longer an idle hypothesis, the singer's look is the harbinger of his own destruction.
This allows us to return to our original baggy question but with now a much tighter focus. Melville offers up a film with an air of fatalism containing an aspect of contingency, and yet a contingent aspect that exacerbates the fatalism. Jef may have an astonishingly rigorous existence, and Melville reflects the rigour of his life in the mainly royal blues and greys that he utilises, but at the same time there is the contingent moment that leads to his inevitable demise. If we go back to our Cocteau story, we can see how the contingent and the fatalistic combine, how the contingent can give that added sense of inextricability to the inevitable. Doesn't Death say in the story that he didn't offer the gardener a look of menace but a look of surprise, and isn't surprise one of the most contingent of reactions? Boredom, irritation, frustration, envy, indignation, remorse, confidence, even fear suggest emotions that are sitting within us, but surprise is something else - it's a feeling belonging to the unexpected. Yet Cocteau's story is nothing if not a work of fatalism: no matter where the gardener goes Death will catch up with him. It is of course a story about the inevitability of death, yet it is the contingent moment that plays up the cruelty of the unavoidable. The gardener thinks he can escape Death by going somewhere else, but then goes to the place where Death expects him.
The nightclub singer would seem to function similarly. She is the contingent moment that lends the film its air of inevitability: the figure who may not be part of the plan but who will lead Jef to his death. Again, however, this may suggest contradiction: for how implicated is Jef in his own end? If the Persian gardener in Cocteau's story tries to escape from the scene of his death, Jef would seem to be pursuing his. He goes back to the scene of the crime twice - the first time to catch perhaps a glimpse of the singer, the second time to kill her. Except of course on this second occasion there are no bullets in the gun. The first return suggest amateurism; the second professionalism in gesture if not in deed. In this second instance he offers the gesture by acting out the moment of killing the pianist by pointing the gun and pulling the trigger - but he's deliberately left the gun unloaded. On the first return the barman sneeringly suggests "the murderer always returns to the scene of the crime you might say." However nobody sees Jef as anything but professional. The gangsters who are trying to kill him admit that he's brilliant at what he does, and the police investigator appears equally admiring. Is it simply that Jef falls in love and must then inevitably fall from gangster grace?
Two critics, John Orr and Tom Milne, offer quite different takes on the film. Orr's is pessimistic; Milne's piece on Melville in Cinema: a Critical Dictionary hints at optimism. Orr in Contemporary Cinema says "the beautiful black jazz pianist who sees him commit the murder is the woman who has actually ordered the killing through the middleman who then tries to kill Delon after the killing. She in turn contacts the police to kill Delon when he finally returns to kill her." Milne believes, though, that the night club singer haunts Jef "because he feels he should have killed her as the only witness to his crime, but didn't; and because she should logically have betrayed him to the police, but didn't." Some might argue in relation to Milne's comments that the pianist didn't do so because she had ordered the hit, and may have implicated herself in the crime if she pointed the finger at someone else, and that Jef didn't kill her because it would have meant shooting her in the more public hall, where she happened to be, rather than in the boss's more private office. Are these readings mutually compatible? Orr's take is that of "the perfect fantasy scenario of paranoid delusion" that plays on ultra-suspicion; Milne's that "the only meeting place for impossible love is death". Both accept that the pianist betrays Jef, but Milne suggests it's inadvertent; Orr not.
Actually it seems we don't know for sure, just as we don't really know whether Jef leaves his gun empty so that he won't be able to kill the woman he now loves, or whether his relative incompetence in carrying out the initial killing - in being taken in for questioning, in being shot, in returning to the scene of the crime - means that he has to sacrifice himself. As he pulls the trigger does he not accept someone will fire a gun at him, even if he might not expect it would be the police? This is murder as suicide - as if Jef demands his own death. Certainly this is so if we take into account Yukio Mishima's work on the Samurai code, On Hagakure. "What is dignity", Mishima asks. "Dignity is the outward manifestation of inviolable self-respect; it is what makes a man a man. It is the firm belief that one would rather die than be despised by others." That mocking tone offered by the barman when Jef initially returns to the scene of the crime would seem to demand that when he returns again it will be to die. Yet this is interpretation rather than revelation, and Melville keeps things ambiguous.
There may be a very good reason why Melville is equivocal here, and allows for two very different readings to come through: the relatively cynical (Orr's) and the relatively romantic (Milne's). Talking about his early work and specifically Le Silence de la Mer, Melville said "at that time I wasn't afraid of poetry in the cinema. Now it terrifies me. I realized that poetry in cinema is dangerous the day Andr Gide saw my film...At the screening it was obvious that he wanted [the couple] to rush into each other's arms." Melville here uses the term poetry the way others might use the word sentimentality; and what we've been suggesting is that often in Melville's work there is an undercurrent of the sentimental, a potentially warm heart surrounding the clinical exterior, evident in LeDoulos and Un Flic.
Perhaps, then, the most useful way of looking at the film is to say that it functions somewhere between Orr and Milne's take; that it works simultaneously with a cold spatiality and an out of reach warmth. Earlier we proposed that Jef is a character who could have been born yesterday, that he lives as if in a temporal void and that he exists more specifically in a spatial trap than just about any other character in cinema that one can think of. If critics like Armes have pointed out how unrealistic Melville's films often are, talking about the lack of interest in plausible location and costume, then this isn't a realistic Paris Jef moves through, but instead a mise-en scene he tries to sustain. He wants to live less a life, nor even a lifestyle, but a curious type of event. Each assassination is an event, and he must arrange his existence according to the nature of the one he has created. This is why we talk of the spatiality that is central to Jef's existence, and this may also be why Orr mentions the non sequitur that is the bugging of Jef's flat. Jef is a man who has no life to bug - he is a solitary and silent figure whose apartment is as barren and functional as the cell it resembles.
Now there is a great term Mishima uses in his samurai book: "spiritual cosmetics". What Mishima despises is the sort of emotional opportunist who tries to be beautiful for the "sake of appearances". "When one tries to be beautiful in order to be loved, effeminacy begins...In this day and age, when even bitter medicine is encased in sugar coating, people will accept only what is palatable and easy to chew." Jef is certainly not into spiritual cosmetics, and perhaps when Melville fretted over the 'poetry' it lay in the idea of the cosmetically spiritual; that the viewer was given an 'effeminate' feeling when Melville wanted to work closer to a fragile masculinity. This would be fragile in the Achillean sense of the term: what weakness is there within that strength? Melville doesn't seem to be suggesting that Jef is especially weakened by his coup de foudre, but he might believe he is made fragile by the circumstances of his situation: that he gets called in by the police, that he gets shot trying to collect his money, that he returns to the club to see the pianist. Melville offers us Jef who is simultaneously ennobled and emasculated by love. It is what stops Melville's film arriving at the macho, while at the same time holding in check the sentimental. It is, as we shall see, a double-bind.
This is the double-bind of a man who lives a solitary life and yet an existence not completely without obligations from others - evident in the alibi he asks for from Jane. But what happens if a man finds his feeling not in accepting the love of others, but demanding love himself? It is one thing to expect pragmatically help from another; but a different thing to insist on love from someone else. If we said earlier that Jef is a man for whom existence is a series of events rather than a life or a lifestyle, then how can Jef fall in love within his carefully designed 'eventful' existence? The mise-en-scene Jef generates around the scene of a crime is a cold mise-en-scene: a practical, spatial alibi. But to fall in love within this cold mise-en-scene is a horrible irony, and it is this horrible irony that holds in balance the sentimental and the hard-boiled.
Thus when we proposed the question of chance versus fate we did so aware of the bagginess of the question unless there is a specific problem to address in relation to it. The baggy question isn't irrelevant initself; it is irrelevant without a specific problem with which to work. In this instance Le Samourai is the specific problem, and more especially Jef's life, where he has created for himself a style of existence that to some degree generates its own entrapment. It may be due to chance that he becomes besotted by the nightclub pianist, but it may be 'fate' - or, more appropriately, the predetermined - that means he cannot generate a new mise-en-scene to incorporate this feeling. What Melville does is take the clich of a man trapped in his emotions and expands it to suggest it is much more a man trapped within the givens of a mise-en-scene that Jef has gone to great lengths to create. It is as though Jef has moulded his life out of the impossibility of being found out, on being an assassin who can kill without consequence because he lives without giving the police the opportunities to find him out. Whether this is using his love as an alibi, or sitting silently in an apartment that he uses merely as a base, Jef paradoxically escapes prison by creating for himself a life that is remarkably like one.
But what happens if this becomes a horrible realization when something comes into his life for which the mise-en-scene no longer fits, and where it unravels as he tries to find a new mode? From the samurai perspective Jef must die: he has failed on a number of accounts. He fails to kill a witness, he returns to a scene of a crime, and he becomes emotionally attached to something he clearly cannot walk away from. This is a self that must die. But can he give birth to another self at the same time? Can he find love when nothing in his existence lends itself to the possibility? The answer in this instance is clearly no, and yet contains affirmation nevertheless. As Jef pulls the trigger on an empty gun and looks at the pianist's face, the pianist looks back, and it is as though in their own entrapped way they have consummated their relationship. Jef announces his love as he accepts his demise, and the pianist looks at him as if she accepts the gift of his love, while aware it can only be a gesture of acceptance, and not a realizable possibility. Chance may decide that Jef can find love; but fate - or the givens of his existence - mean that he cannot do anything but sacrifice himself to it.
© Tony McKibbin