Walking the Thin Line Between Symbolic and Real
Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï depicts one of the most interesting characters from the French New Wave: Alain Delon's Jef Costello. A cold and almost completely silent contract killer, Jef is explicitly meant to symbolize the Japanese idea of the samurai from which the film gets its title. This is not the only reason audiences are drawn to his character, however. Much more compelling is Jef's relation to the Lacanian drive and the way he skirts the edge of the Symbolic order and touches the Real. There are three elements which allow us to trace Jef's drive and the way he edges on the Real: first, through atmosphere and setting; second, through several precise, ritualistic repetitions Jef performs; and third, through his clothes and their gradual disintegration.
Le Samouraï opens with a wide angle shot of Jef's apartment which is very dark, small, and sparsely furnished. The walls aren't falling apart, but it seems there's very little left holding them up. There is little visible aside from a bed, a bird cage, and a chair or two. At first we can barely even see Jef lying on his bed. The only sound is the occasional chirping of the bird until Jef lights a cigarette. There are a couple of other places in the film with a similar mise-en-scène. Before committing his first murder, Jef goes to a hotel room where several men, all smoking, are playing a card game. The room is foggy with all the smoke in the air and seems to perfectly fit the ideal of a gangster hideout. The final location that shares this mise-en-scène is a garage where Jef takes stolen cars to have their license plates changed. The garage is so dark that the mechanic needs a large floodlight in order to change the plates in the back of the car. Like Jef's flat and the hotel room, the garage is also dirty and generally unkempt.
This low-light, disheveled, almost other-worldly mise-en-scène characterizes half of the locations in the movie, and is starkly contrasted by the other half. On this other side, first of all, we have the night club where Jef commits the first murder in the film. There is an abundance of clean white plastic, clear glass, and bright lights. The club looks incredibly modern. There are only sharp, precise angles or perfectly smooth, round surfaces. Everything looks pristine. The other places that share this crisp mise-en-scène include the police station where Jef goes after being picked up as part of a routine roundup. There is very little color: instead things are either white as ivory or black as coal, and everything looks clean enough that you could eat off of it. Finally, the pianist's apartment shares this same sort of idealistic appearance, and this is coincidentally the first clue that she's not on Jef's side (despite the fact that she manages to save him from arrest).
These two types of mise-en-scène can be read as representing two different orders from Lacanian psychoanalysis. The dingy, poorly lit locations represent places which lean towards the Real, an unsafe place outside the comfortable confines of the Symbolic. In Jef's apartment, he has a stack of money cut in half which he hides in the chimney. This embodies perfectly the inconsistency in the Big Other. This uncanny item is evidence for Jef that the Big Other, embodied in currency, is always (literally) split, and thus cannot give consistency to the Symbolic order. In both the hotel room and the garage there are illicit activities going on. In the hotel room players are gambling outside the view of the Big Other, and the hotel also serves as part of Jef's alibi for a murder he actually did commit. The garage allows Jef to steal any car he wants while staying outside the gaze of the Big Other by changing the car's license plates. These locations are thus not only outside of the law but also outside of the realm of the Big Other and therefore outside the Symbolic. Interestingly, these unsafe areas are the places that Jef appears most comfortable.
The other, well-lit, pristine locations serve as the very heart of the Symbolic order. The night club, perhaps the most confusing of the three places, might seem to be a space outside the Symbolic (and in fact night clubs are often portrayed this way in cinema). However, the night club instead serves as a way to contain the desire to drink alcohol in a safe environment and under the gaze of the Big Other. You cannot drink excessively since bartenders have the right to deny you drinks, and you can also be removed from the establishment for disorderly conduct. Finally, and most importantly, the way Martey's murder and Jef's death affect the crowd clearly indicate that this is not a place where bad things happen. The police station is a much more obvious space in which the Symbolic has complete reign. The only reason Jef manages to escape is that he has constructed an alibi through which the Big Other cannot see. In contrast to the former Real locations, when under the gaze of the Big Other Jef is constantly on his guard.
The reason Jef feels more comfortable when he's closer to the Real than the Symbolic is that he is a subject of drive. Zizek differentiates the subject of desire from the subject of drive in terms of the difference between the aim and the goal:
of course every object of desire is an illusory lure... however, it is here that one should fully assert Lacan's claim that les non-dupes errent. Even if the object of desire is an illusory lure, there is a real in this illusion: the object of desire in its positive nature is vain, but not the place it occupies, the place of the Real... There is a parallax shift at work here... in Lacanese, the shift from desire to drive... This gap that separates the aim from the goal “eternalizes” the drive, transforming the simple instinctual movement which finds peace and calm when it reaches its goal... into a process which gets caught in its own loop and insists on endlessly repeating itself. (LITET, 72-3; my emphasis)
In short, the subject of desire focuses on the goal of an action, for example the pleasure gained from finishing a paper, whereas the subject of drive focuses on the aim of the action, for example, the enjoyment gained from the act of writing itself (see what I did there?). The crucial difference here is not (only) the difference I have alluded to here between plaisir (pleasure) and jouissance (enjoyment), but (also) the way that focusing on the aim of an action “'eternalizes' the drive”. Jef endlessly repeats what gives him enjoyment (killing people for money) even at the risk of his own death. Le Samouraï stages exactly this process of a subject of drive pursuing his enjoyment precisely to the point of his death (the reason Freud called it “death drive”).
We can see the way Jef embodies the subject of drive in two distinct rituals he performs before his murders. These are not simple approximate repetitions, but due to the way they are filmed they are almost perfect mirrors. The first action is the way Jef puts on his hat: he puts it onto the front of his head first and them pushes the back of it down, and famously runs his thumb and forefingers back and forth across the brim. Before the two successful murders, of Martey and Rey, we see Jef do this in front of the small mirror in his apartment and, except for the fact that he's wearing a different coat (a fact I will discuss below), the two scenes are identical. The second ritual Jef performs in slightly more complicated. As he approaches his targets we get a close up shot of him removing his white, glove-clad hands from his pockets without a gun, a cut to his target pointing a gun at him, and then a cut to Jef firing his own gun (mysteriously retrieved from his pocket between shots). Zizek argues that these ritualistic “empty gestures” are the essence of the ethics of the drive:
It is not just that the subject must not “give way as to his drive”; the status of the drive itself is inherently ethical... The point is not to remember the past trauma as exactly as possible: such “documentation” is a priori false, it transforms the trauma into a neutral, objective fact, whereas the essence of the trauma is precisely that it is too horrible to be remembered, to be integrated into our symbolic universe. All we have to do is to mark repeatedly the trauma as such, in its very “impossibility”, in its non-integrated horror, by means of some “empty” symbolic gesture. (FTKNWTD, 272; my emphasis)
Jef's ritual repetitions are precisely such a “marking” of trauma. The first ritual, of putting his hat on a certain way in front of a mirror, marks the trauma of the entrance into the Symbolic order through the mirror stage and the attendant loss of direct access to jouissance. The second ritual, of seeming to be caught unprepared before miraculously producing a gun and killing his targets, is a repetition of Jef's Symbolic death which he had to experience in order to become a subject of drive. Because of this death he can now access enjoyment (albeit indirectly) through his adherence to the ethics of the drive. Significantly, when Jef knows he is going to die and the endless cycle of the drive is going to end, he no longer follows these rituals. He leaves his hat at the coat check and pulls out his gun before his target.
This repeated confrontation with Jef's trauma does not come without a cost. There is a deleterious effect on Jef which can be traced through the clothing he wears. As Stella Bruzzi argues,
Spatial intrusions mirror the critical dissolution of Jef's sartorial image, moments of crisis in Le Samouraï being marked by the gradual, painful fragmentation of the initial Trilby, suit and trenchcoat 'ideal'. The crisis moment that graphically embodies Jef's inevitable disintegration occurs after he has been shot going to collect his money for the hit job at the beginning of the film. For the only time, Jef is forced to remove he 'suit of armor' in order to dress the bullet wound. In terms of clothes iconography this is a complex sequence. Fashion or clothes seem to substitute an ideal body for a real body, and the sight of Delon's real body in a white T-shirt doubly signals Jef's vulnerability and the loss of his ideal, as he has become both the incomplete gangster and the object of the erotic gaze. (Bruzzi, 80)
In order to withstand his constant confrontations with the Real, Jef must wear a “suit of armor” comprised of his hat, suit, and trenchcoat, as well as his famous white gloves. This suit of armor gradually disintegrates throughout the film as he confronts trauma, however, and signals Jef's proximity to death. After he is shot trying to collect his money, Jef has to wear a different coat over his suit, and this new coat is black while his original trenchcoat is light brown (see my above analysis of mise-en-scène). Also significant is that, in the final scene where he is killed, he gives his hat to the lady checking coats and doesn't even take the ticket he would need to retrieve it later. At this point he recognizes that he has been caught and no longer needs his complete “suit of armor”. Because of this, Jef's clothing functions for him as his sinthome, that which gives him access to jouissance and which also simultaneously gives consistency to his being and announces his inevitable destruction:
Symptom as sinthome is a certain signifying formation penetrated with enjoyment... What we must bear in mind here is the radical ontological status of symptom: symptom, conceived as sinthome, is literally our only substance, the only positive support of our being, the only point that gives consistency to the subject. In other words, symptom is the way we – the subjects – 'avoid madness', the way we 'choose something... instead of nothing...' through the binding of our enjoyment to a certain signifying, symbolic formation which assures a minimum of consistency to our being-in-the-world. If the symptom in this radical dimension is unbound, it means literally 'the end of the world' – the only alternative to the symptom is nothing: pure autism, a psychic suicide, surrender to the death drive, even to the total destruction of the symbolic universe. (TSOOI, 81)
Thus Jef's clothing, his composite image of the “gangster”, is his only defense against the Real, the only thing keeping him from “surrender[ing] to the death drive” (as opposed to adherence to the ethics of the drive). It is at the same time the only thing which allows him to enjoy, the only thing which allows him access to jouissance as opposed to mere plaisir.
Jef follows the ethics of the drive as far as he can. He provides an example of the way a subject can gain access to jouissance: through an endlessly repeated marking of the subject's past traumas. Jef does a good job defending himself from his repeated encounters with the Real through the ethics of the drive, but because for him there is no Big Other, when Jane asks him, “What can I do Jef?” the only answer he can give is, “Nothing. I'll work it all out.”
Work Cited (references to Zizek's works are by book title)
1. Melville, Jean-Pierre, Le Samouraï, Compagnie Industrielle et Commerciale Cinématographique, 1967
2. Bruzzi, Stella, Undressing Cinema, Routledge, New York, 1997
3. Zizek, Slavoj, For They Know Not What They Do, Verso, New York, 2008
4. Zizek, Slavoj, Living in the End Times, Verso, New York, 2010
5. Zizek, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology Second Edition, Verso, New York, 2008
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