Cannes 2019: Remembering a classic film with Alain Delon, recipient of the honorary Palme d’Or
Alain Delon is being awarded the Palme d'Or this year at Cannes — despite the controversy around him as he “is a legendary actor and part of Cannes history”.
For a brief while, it appeared that Alain Delon might not receive the honorary Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Melissa Silverstein, the founder of the American organisation 'Women and Hollywood,' tweeted that Delon “has publicly admitted to slapping women. He has aligned himself with the racist and anti-Semitic National Front. He has claimed that being gay is ‘against nature’. The Cannes Film Festival has committed itself to diversity and inclusion. By honoring Mr. Delon, Cannes is honoring these abhorrent values.” So far, the Festival hasn’t said anything about retracting the honour, which, as always, raises the slippery-slope question about art vs. artist. Do you judge Delon by what he (apparently) said or did? Or do you simply acknowledge, as Cannes is doing, that Delon “is a legendary actor and part of Cannes history”?
It’s not easy to pick one film to celebrate the remarkable career of the ridiculously handsome Delon — so why not leave the picking to the star himself? In a 1967 television interview, promoting this famous film, one written specifically for him, Delon said of the filmmaker: “He’s the greatest director I’ve had the good fortune, pleasure and honour to work with up to this point… He’s wonderful. He knows more about cinema than anyone. He’s the greatest director I know, the greatest cameraman, the best at framing and lighting, the best at everything. He’s a living encyclopedia of cinema.” You must remember that, by this point, Delon had already worked with Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Eclisse), René Clément (Purple Noon) and Luchino Visconti (Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard) — so this is indeed sky-high praise. The director is Jean-Pierre Melville, and the film, Le Samouraï.
The film is about Jef Costello, a modern-day (as in, 1960s) samurai living in Paris. He is actually a hired killer, but he lives by the code of a Japanese warrior (or at least, the code that we know from the samurai or, as the Japanese call it, chanbara cinema). Le Samouraï is filled with samurai-genre tropes: say, the honorable death via seppuku or harakiri, or the sword fight (now, of course, a gunfight). But most significantly, it opens with a quote from Bushido (Book of the Samurai): “There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle, perhaps…” (Melville reportedly cooked up this quote himself.) The theme is solitude, and the film’s opening visual is of Jef, alone in his apartment, unless you count the caged bird beside him.
A caged bird is usually a visual metaphor for confinement or imprisonment, and you could say Jef is confined/imprisoned by the life he’s chosen for himself. He cannot allow himself to feel. He cannot allow himself fall in love. But when he chooses not to kill the female witness to one of his “jobs”, he shows signs of being human, and in these films, that’s always a sign that the end is near. Only machines survive in this profession. So why does Jef not kill this witness, who’s the pianist at the nightclub where the killing took place? The film doesn’t tell us, and we feel that Jef is perhaps asking himself the same question. Jef is filmed so unemotionally (the cinematographer is the great Henri Decaë, who drains all colour and traces of life) that his stillness, capped by the mask-face, appears inevitable.
And we get to Alain Delon’s performance, which is essentially Alain Delon’s face. Even as Jef finds himself in the crossfire between the gangsters who hired him and the cops on his tail, Delon doesn’t betray a smidge of emotion. Some might call Le Samouraï a feature-length commercial for the cold perfection of the actor’s looks, which you’d call “beautiful” rather than the more traditionally masculine “handsome”. Delon himself was very aware of this beauty, though he chose to call himself handsome. In a 2018 GQ interview, he told the writer, “I am handsome. And it seems, my darling, that I was very, very, very, very handsome indeed. Look at Rocco [And His Brothers], look at Purple Noon! The women were all obsessed with me. From when I was 18 till when I was 50.”
But mere beauty — okay, handsomeness — can hardly sustain a career. Paul Newman isn’t Paul Newman because people kept telling him “‘Take off your dark glasses so we can see your beautiful blue eyes”. Well, that too. But it’s also because he worked hard to be seen as more than just a good looker, in rough-edged films like Hud and The Hustler and Cool Hand Luke. Delon had a amazingly highlights-filled career, notching up films with everyone from Louis Malle to Joseph Losey to Jean-Luc Godard, who said, “I wanted to film Delon as if he was a tree”. Even Madonna’s a fan. “I’ve seen every movie Alain Delon’s ever made…he’s so charismatic,” she told the Los Angeles Times. Her 2012 album MDNA contains a track called Beautiful Killer, inspired by Le Samouraï and Delon in particular. Sample these lyrics: “I like your silhouette when you stand on the streets / Like a samurai you can handle the heat…” The last line of the song is an ode to the actor’s exceptional place in the cinema of his time. “You’re a beautiful killer, but you’ll never be Alain Delon.”
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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