What do women want? Beneath the tropes of the erotic thriller and beyond the day to day workings of a Los Angeles escort, Julian (Richard Gere) embodies the idea of a perfect man in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980). As a handsome and debonair playboy, Julian represents, for most women, the imagined Prince Charming of their youth. In bed, he’s neither garish nor rough, as he gently coaxes women to orgasm while whispering sweet nothings into their ear. Julian’s work blends body and soul as he sells more than just his physicality, but also humor, charm and style.
Opening to the sounds of Blondie’s “Call Me,” American Gigolo’s editing fetishizes Julian’s two-door black convertible Mercedes Benz with a leather interior. Speeding down the L.A. freeway, Julian seems effortlessly cool and deceptively delicate. In context of Schrader’s career, the convertible represents more than just a sleek representation of the California dream and the fantasy of carefree hedonism — it represents an alternative to Midwest values. Concerned by the work of men, his films up to this point (Taxi Driver, Blue Collar and Hardcore) have at least been tangentially about men working in the American car industry. Julian, introduced on the road, doesn’t drive an American car, so he’s a different kind of worker. He drives his German car to a fitting for an Italian suit before picking up an American woman. For Schrader, it seems, California is a different kind of America.
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California, as a fantasy land where dreams are pumped out to the American public, blurs the line between lie and fantasy. Featuring a very different sex industry than the one in Hardcore, American Gigolo has been geared towards the bored women of Los Angeles. These women are buying something exotic — someone more Marcello Mastroianni than Humphrey Bogart — and Gere comes to embody an appealing foreignness in his aesthetic. The women that hire Julian are not looking for the real him, but a fairytale both parties can feed into. Schrader, who previously seemed obsessed with the working man, still finds a tremendous amount of empathy for these unemployed women kept on a tight leash by their image conscious husbands. Through Julian, Schrader finds both pity and love for the women who have been locked up in their ivory towers and trapped in a nightmare of always having to say the right thing at the right time.
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American Gigolo doesn’t always come together, however, as the thriller elements never quite gel. Schrader builds unnecessary tension by casting doubt on Julian’s version of events, which doesn’t contribute to his character, nor does it make him more “complex.” The genre trappings in American Gigolo don’t complement what already happens to be a thrilling underbelly of obsession and desire, as they add very little to the film. It may give Schrader an opportunity to explore the darker circles of male gigolo work, but it also seems that he could have found himself there anyway. Julian may be trying to go “freelance,” but that doesn’t mean he won’t be pulled around or pushed back into scenarios he’s been running away from without murder hanging over his head. Venetian blinds or not, American Gigolo doesn’t necessarily work as a neo-noir, but it still has enough romance and intrigue to be well worth watching.
Justine Peres Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema.