Le Samouraï

Le Samouraï ★★★★★

The samurai in Akira Kurosawa's films lead honorable lives, although they are essentially contract killers, like Jef Costello in Le Samourai. But a samurai lives by a code of honor, bound by his loyalty to other people. Jef Costello lives and kills by his own rules, obligated to no one but himself.

We are told nothing of Costello's past, of what compels him to live a life of such solitude and discipline, or why he works as a paid killer. His apartment betrays no clues, stark and bare as it is. He moves like a shadow. He is always well-dressed and effortlessly suave. Costello is cold and detached at all times, his calm demeanor unshaken by everything but a bullet wound on his arm.

And even then, Costello cleans up his wound with the precision of a doctor unmoved by his patient's discomfort. Costello is wearing a thin t-shirt, his body is tight with pain, and he relaxes only after he sinks into bed and lights up a cigarette. This unexpectedly intimate moment, and a later one in which he makes a promise to his girlfriend, are the only ones in which Costello seems to be human.

But is that enough to turn him into a tragic figure by the end of Le Samourai, to eventually make him so humane? Perhaps it's also because Costello, played by Alain Delon, is unbelievably handsome, with a face so perfect that he can only be one of two things: an angel or a devil. By all accounts, he should be the latter, but we are always more lenient with beautiful people. And so we give Jef Costello the benefit of the doubt.

Le Samourai is, like Alain Delon, almost painfully flawless. There is nothing extraneous in the film, nothing that strikes the wrong chord. Everything is pared down to its most essential elements. Each shot is as beautifully composed as a painting, each detail meticulous and lovingly arranged.

There is a conspicuous lack of dialogue, explanations, and backstory in Le Samourai that only makes it even stronger as a film. In fact, it is effectively a silent film with sound effects, and what little dialogue there is would fit comfortably on a few title cards.

The plot seems fairly straightforward, but it was only after watching the end credits roll that I realized just how complicated everything had become. What was even more astonishing was that I hadn't needed an explanation of anybody's motivations or the reasons behind the murder that Costello is paid to commit. I've never been told a story almost independently of words.

Le Samourai is cinema distilled: a story told primarily through images and unspoken emotion. It is a perfect film in nearly every sense, and I suspect that it will only get better with each subsequent viewing.

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