Unexplained racialiciousness in “Le Samourai” (1967)

20 September 2011

She’s spectacular, yes? Cathy Rosier as Valérie, the pianist in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. In every scene she functions as the strangely twinned counterpart to Alain Delon’s Jef Costello. Delon was just as uncannily pretty, but so steely as to be less versatile. Seeing it again raised that itch at the back of my brain, and prompts me to ask: why did Melville cast a Black woman in this role?

Her eyes, her clothes, that gorgeous sleek helmet of hair, the perfect position of her lips which never quite make a pout — there’s no doubt she was an ideal choice. My question comes from the fact that casting a Black woman in a film noir was an unusual choice for 1967.

Le Samouraï is as much about style as anything else — so one answer might be that Rosier was chosen not for her race but for her extraordinary look. When I say she functions as Delon’s uncanny twin, I’m quite serious. Both possess such femininity and languid grace that it almost breaks your heart. In contrast, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall look like hardened fishmongers.But I’m inclined to think Rosier was also selected because she’s black, because she offers that racialicious contrast to Delon’s eminent white Frenchness. Her beautiful skin contrasts so beautifully against the shimmering white-and-goldness of this room with the piano. When she posed in that crazy beautiful leopard-skin coat while the detectives took her statement, she evoked a dark danger to Delon’s character’s anonymity. By using this spectacular coat, the director evokes unknowable Africanness to go with his film noir.

Yet another writer sees the tale as a riff on Orpheus. Julian Petley believes that Le Samourai plays with the tale of Orpheus being called to the underworld. “If, in Orphée , it was the otherworldly Princess who becomes susceptible to human feelings and returns Orpheus’s love, here it is the icy, solitary Jef whose feelings are awakened and who, thus shorn of his strength, deliberately accepts death and destiny. And just to underline the parallel with Orphée , the Princess is a white woman dressed in black, while Valérie is a black woman dressed in white.”

Maybe, maybe not. As with so many things in film, perhaps it’s ultimately impossible to explain the racialiciousness surrounding Rosier’s role in this movie. Part Lieutenant Uhuru, part glamour goddess, part mysterious African savage (or Josephine Baker), part separated-at-birth Delon twin … all these incomplete musings make me ponder the possibility of examining blackness in “white” movies of the 60s, that era of racial tumult. (Or maybe I’ll leave it to the experts. Stay tuned.)

4 Responses to “Unexplained racialiciousness in “Le Samourai” (1967)”

  1. Spanish Prof Says:

    Great post. I wonder, though, how the specific French context would play in an analysis of the racial politics of the film.
    It’s not exactly a remake, but have you seen Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog – The Way of the Samurai”. Forest Whitaker plays the samurai, and he is magnificent.

    • Didion Says:

      I love, lurve Ghost Dog. And Forest Whitaker, always. But somehow it doesn’t surprise me that by 1999 a black actor of his calibre would get such a great part in an unexpected genre like samurai noir (maybe since Denzel Washington had done that great turn in Devil in a Blue Dress in ’95). I just found it so striking and interesting that Melville would make that choice in ’67 — even re: the way he uses Rosier as a stylish placeholder.

  2. jstheater Says:

    You do know that the writer Tisa Bryant explored this very topic in depth and with tremendous panache in her collection Unexplained Presence (Leon Works, 2007), right? If so, it would be great to credit her work. Come correct, please. If not, you should check out what she has to say!

    • Didion Says:

      Wow, no — I’ve got to read this. Thanks, JSTheater! I’ll get it from the library tomorrow!

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