Paul (Joseph) Schrader Andrew Sarris - Essay

Andrew Sarris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[American Gigolo is] the most elegant of Schrader's directorial exercises, and there are never any lapses of tone. What's lacking, as always, are narrative flow, dramatic development, and psychological coherence…. [Up to now Schrader's] style has seemed either too obviously derivative, or too disruptive in terms of the very lurid material with which he has chosen to work. It is as if Bresson were trying to direct a [Luis] Bunuel script.

Curiously, American Gigolo is less lurid than it might have been because Julian Kay is never smug or jaded, and Schrader does not hold any of his characters in contempt. [Michelle] is strangely, if awkwardly, sincere as the great love of Julian's life. Schrader clearly lacks the flair for articulating this love with appropriate dialogue, but the iconic eye contact works just the same. Significantly, [Julian and Michelle] seem closest at precisely those moments when they are separated physically, but connected optically. As soon as the bedcovers are turned down Schrader seems to revert to an academic collage of flesh-signs suggested by Godard's two-dimensional skin shots in Une Femme Mariee.

When the plot takes a sudden twist into a frame-up for murder Schrader finds himself in much the same bind that [Francis Ford] Coppola did at the end of The Conversation, with realism giving way to stylization, observation to intuition, and experience to ritual…. Somehow the picture keeps moving along until that very startling moment when Schrader boldly lifts Bresson's leap-of-faith ending from Pickpocket virtually intact, along with the deadpan declaration of a completely irrational, and, in dramatic terms, completely unearned love….

[For] the first time ever I find myself on Schrader's side as he strains to transfer dangerously internalized feelings onto the dynamic surfaces of the cinema…. [Under] the best circumstances Schrader would never entirely overwhelm me with his formal and cerebral tendencies. But American Gigolo remains nonetheless an honorable and fascinating work by an American artist, who just happens to be spiritually abstracted from the world at large.

Andrew Sarris, "Different Strokes …" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV, No. 5, February 4, 1980, p. 43.∗