Bushido Code – Drive and Le Samouraï

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was enormously popular and influential among critics, audiences, and filmmakers when first released. It presented itself as an art house film that could be enjoyed by the common cinemagoer, made all the more accessible by its in-the-moment star Ryan Gosling, probably one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood. Audiences going to see the film expected a car-chasing thriller from the trailers, but were instead treated to a somber study of  human relationships and the consequences of bad choices.

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Choices were made.

Because of the film’s popularity, comparisons have been made to many previous works that may have influenced Refn. Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterpiece Le Samouraï  is another early example of this kind of “accessible art house” filmmaking. The film also stars an actor that would have resonated with a wide range of people at the time, Alain Delon. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, went as far to say that Delon was “an actor so improbably handsome that his best strategy for dealing with his looks was to use a poker face.”

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Improbably Handsome.

However, neither of these films are classics because of their attractive male leads. Like Drive, Le Samouraï starts off with the protagonist, in some way or another, committing a crime while driving a car. With such memorable opening sequences, audiences could expect both of these films to be full-fledged crime thrillers, complete with car chases and gun battles. However, in both cases we are treated to a reflective character study of two men who speak only when spoken to, who live a life devoid of pleasures, and most importantly, who live by a code.

The opening of Le Samouraï begins, much as Drive does, in a sparsely furnished apartment. After the opening titles end, a quote appears on screen:

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“There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle… Perhaps…”
-Bushido (Book of the Samurai)

Despite the Book of the Samurai being a fictional invention (I’m sure Melville didn’t worry about audiences doing any research on Bushido) this quote allows the viewer to understand Delon’s character: he is a man who will do what he needs to without compromising his moral fiber. Gosling’s character in Drive is the same, though he lives by no explicit code other than his own. At the end of both films, the protagonists sacrifice themselves for a greater cause: the safety and welfare of the women they love.

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Diane, if you ever get up this way that cherry pie is worth a stop.

 

Both of these films say something about the human experience in that the only occurrence that can change man is the act of falling in love. Fifty years later, this truth no doubt continues to resonate with audiences today. It is easy to simplify these films as faux-thrillers where an attractive lead does not say much. However, the continued legacy of these films is in their protagonists, men that live by a code in a world that does not allow for morality.

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Real Human Being.
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The Literal Male Gaze in The Silence of the Lambs

I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a while now, and in light of Jonathan Demme’s passing yesterday, it seemed only right to finish it. I really feel that this sort of piece would work better in the form of a video blog, but for now screenshots will have to do.

The Silence of the Lambs is a film about the eyes: what the eyes see, what they choose to avoid, windows to the soul. Demme’s penchant for full-frame and centered closeups on actors is used to maximum effect in this film, often having their eyes looking directly at the camera. There are so many levels to the ways eyes and voyeurism are used in this film, but one example stuck out at me.

The film serves as a commentary on feminist issues and the struggle of being female in a male-dominated field of work. Clarice Starling is framed in ways that emphasize her juxtaposition against a patriarchal world throughout the film.

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This framing is powerful, but never used in an exploitative way. By this I mean she is never framed in a way that presents her as a sexual object of male pleasure for the audience; the concept of the male gaze, coined by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey.

The interesting thing about The Silence of the Lambs is that is uses a more literal male gaze in the film, in which we can see various characters examining Starling in a sexual or demeaning way. Throughout the film, male characters make flirtatious or debasing comments towards Starling while looking her right in the eyes, causing her to break eye contact, if only momentarily.

First with Dr. Chilton commenting on how attractive he finds Starling:

Then with Hannibal Lecter examining the various fragrances she wears:

And again, when Sherrif Perkins examines Starling in light of Jack Crawford’s comments about her being unable to stomach sexual violence:

In each of these scenarios, the male character and Starling are making eye contact, but she is made to look away.

It is only after examining these instances that the significance of Starling’s interaction with the cross-eyed entomologist Pilcher becomes apparent. At the start of their examination of the death’s-head hawkmoth, Starling is focused on the insect cocoon. However, as Pilcher’s comments becoming increasingly flirtatious, Starling looks away from the procedure and maintains eye contact until Pilcher is the one to break it, rather than her.

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This is an odd but extremely effective visual metaphor. Starling is not intimidated by Pilcher’s comments because he is literally incapable of exercising the male gaze due to his crossed eyes. It could be that Demme was using this scene to represent growth for Starling’s character, or some other meaning I am unaware of. Even if I don’t fully understand why this symbolism is being used here, it’s clever as hell. Jonathan Demme, you will be sorely missed.