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‘American Gigolo’ (Blu-ray review)

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Writer/Director Paul Schrader’s favorite subject is the solitary man who, upon finding that the world will not bend to his will, shuts himself up into a cocoon-like projection of his own inner life and convinces himself that it is the world, until the illusion can no longer be maintained and, generally, physical and psychic violence ensues.

American Gigolo trades much of the superficial elements of Schrader’s earlier character studies, Rolling Thunder and Taxi Driver, but the same impulse drives it as does those older films, even if slick New Wave pop has replaced the somber Jazz.

Richard Gere’s Julian Kay, like De Niro’s Travis Bickle is a man so intent on self transformation into his own idealization of himself that he can no longer be a part of the world he finds himself in.

Kay is a male courtesan directed by two very different pimps (Bill Duke and Nina van Pallandt) to wealthy women looking for intellectual companionship and lovemaking. He won’t take rough jobs, and employs total dedication to an image of himself as a man who gives women pleasure.

Indeed, the lingering images from this film in popular culture all come from Gere’s bespoke 80’s luxury apartment and selection of immaculate Armani menswear. There’s not a grand leap from how he carries himself and Christian Bale’s portrayal of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.

Two concurrent developments threaten to rip Kay’s life apart: he meets the gorgeous wife of a senator, Michelle (Lauren Hutton) for whom he develops real feelings, and a trick he worked ends up murdered hours after he left the house leaving him as the prime suspect. Crucially, only Michelle can clear Kay of the murder as he was with her at the time, but to do so would expose her infidelity and destroy her husband’s career.

This is Schrader’s third film after Blue Collar (1978) and Hardcore (1979), and it is easily the most commercial of the three. There’s a real elegance in not only through the gorgeous production design and slick Giorgio Moroder score, but also the elegance of hos Schrader’s camera navigates Kay’s world and how it intersects at points with a California underworld that we don’t see often on film.

I particularly like the visual motif (and I’ve never seen this called out in another review) of how the camera takes some distance from Kay in moments where he allows his facade to fall: for example the famous nude shot, or when he wildly exits an antique dealer’s showroom with a client after concocting a ridiculous persona to deflect questions.

This motif lends a pleasant air of doubt to the film’s ending, lifted from Bresson’s Pickpocket, where Kay seems to indicate to Michelle that he’s ready to pursue his own life. Many took the moment (and the striking visual that symbolizes it) at face value, but the tragedy of American Gigolo is that there seems to be no “real self” for Kay to return to, his persona is so ingrained that he cannot imagine himself without it. He is an empty taxicab, defined in movement and in what he has trained himself to do but unable to simply be, or to be acted upon.

The line that stuck with me the most from American Gigolo occurs at about the halfway point when Kay’s old pimp is trying to strong arm him back into exclusivity in exchange for providing an alibi. He rejects the offer with the following:

I’m more than what I used to be. I’m getting older, Anne, and I gotta keep moving…just move.”

As the walls close in, and Kay stands at the brink of his own personal Armageddon, he cannot imagine a way out that doesn’t come from simple effort, simple will and cannot even verbalize what is obvious to everyone else…that when his desirability fades there will be nothing left of him.

There is no self but the act that it has created.

Extras include commentary, interviews, a gallery, and trailer.

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