American Gigolo: Paul Schrader’s stylish tale of love, loneliness and redemption

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It’s hard to pick out one film where Richard Gere doesn’t look incredibly handsome. With the exception one or two films that he has done recently, I can’t recall any other film where he has not looked like a dashing debonair, despite his age. American Gigolo, Paul Schrader’s third film as director, has Gere in the prime of his youth and at his most stylish. He plays Julian Kaye, a high-class male prostitute whose specialty is older women. Why older women, asks a character at one point and he tells her that older women take more time to reach orgasm – they haven’t had sex for more than 10 years. He recalls a time when he took three hours to help get a woman off. It was tough work for him but he derives a great satisfaction from that kind of thing. He sees that as a challenge and when he succeeds, he thinks he is doing something that even their therapists can’t accomplish.

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He is not interested in sleeping with some teenager who gets aroused so quickly. They bore him. Julian has one rule though – he never services the same client twice. They get possessive, he says, and he can’t have that. Julian is a classic loner who leads a sheltered existence that he has so carefully built and he wouldn’t let anyone mess it up. His lifestyle is different from that of other guys in his profession. His residence is neat and spacious with everything carefully arranged; he has good taste in music and art and has got a great collection of records and paintings. Oh, and did I mention his great taste in clothes? Everything he wears was designed by Giorgio Armani and this film was actually responsible for launching the designer’s career. Gere became one of my style icons after I saw this film. Anyway, one day, Julian is thrown an offer by one of his pimps to service a woman who happens to be the wife of a financier named Rheiman.

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When he arrives at Rheiman’s house, he learns that this has been arranged by Rheiman himself and that he intends to watch Julian have sadomasochistic sex with his wife. Julian agrees. We are not shown any of this. However, Julian soon finds out that she has been brutally murdered and the next thing you know, he is the primary suspect. Investigating this case is a tough and cynical LAPD detective named Sunday (Hector Elizondo) who is hundred percent sure that Julian is guilty. One can see that Schrader was heavily influenced by Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket and certain exchanges between Sunday and Julian remind you of Michel’s conversation with the Inspector about the “supermen” living in society and how they are above the law. Julian says something similar when Sunday reminds him what he is doing is not legal. Just like Michel, Julian sees himself as above the law.

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Julian is truly independent and it’s this nature of his that rubs people the wrong way. “You stepped on too many toes”, somebody tells him. He doesn’t know why he is being framed and by whom. The thought of his lonely existence being shattered by a scandal becomes unbearable for him. It’s during this time that he falls in love with a woman named Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton), the wife of a Senator. Actually, it was she who initially fell for him because she has that same problem that all other clients of his have: a loveless marriage. This turns into a serious relationship and it’s the sort of relationship that Julian never thought he’ll have and something that he has been avoiding for a long time. Julian doesn’t want his problems to affect her life and tries to keep her out of them. But what he doesn’t yet is that she may be his only and most unlikely ticket to redemption.

American Gigolo (1980) Directed by Paul Schrader Shown from left: Lauren Hutton, Richard Gere
From left: Lauren Hutton, Richard Gere

This is a film that was largely misunderstood when it first came out and it still remains one of those underrated classics. I liked it when I saw it the first time but I wasn’t quite sure that I loved it. However, I saw it again for the second time yesterday and I was surprised to find myself loving it so much. I had mentioned earlier that Pickpocket was the primary influence for Schrader while making this film and this is also evident in the ending shot. Those who have seen Pickpocket will know what I’m talking about. There are also shades of Schrader’s Taxi Driver (again influenced by Pickpocket) and this is especially seen in the nighttime sequences where Gere is driving around in his car and going to seedy bars and nightclubs. Giorgio Moroder, the Italian composer behind films like Scarface and Top Gun has done the score and it’s simply fabulous!

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