Reaching new heights with the latest Magpie Tale
“In his latest film, Salut du Samie (Salvation of Samie), Belgian director Francois-Filippe Lai takes his titular automotive protagonist on a journey that pushes the boundaries of this once charming series of children’s films to a point of the polemic and political,” Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times for his review of the 1964 film.
The fifth in the series of Samie films, it was released three weeks after Lai perished in a car crash with a French semi-trailer on the turnpike between Antwerp and Paris. Beginning with his first film, Samie’s two arch nemesis were a Citroën named Pierre and a Mercedes named Karl. There had been objections from the beginning of these large, gas guzzling vehicles being used as metaphors to Belgium’s overbearing neighbors. Causing further controversy, Lai, who was fairly open about his homosexuality, and he had Samie’s love interest, a pink Vespa, be given the androgynous name of Jean. But by the third film it was quite clear that Jean was a boy.
But Salut du Samie pushed the boundaries of even the free-minded continentals. First, many objected to Samie being “killed” early on in the movie. On the German Autobahn, he is cut off by Karl and then rear-ended by Pierre. He is taken to an auto graveyard where, on the third day, he is lifted into the sky by a troop of balloons that recall the rescue in The Red Balloon. The Vatican weighed in calling the film a sacrilege by suggesting it mocked the Resurrection and that Lai was trivializing Christian salvation by setting much of the second half of the film in the Gethsemane Autogarden.
The film did gain a cult status, and like all of the other films had a soundtrack with wordless vocalizations by Elise Brel, Jacque’s cousin who would win a Palme d’Or for the fifth time for her original compositions and vocals.
In the late 1970s, a pop-punk group from Antwerp’s musical underground emerged with the name of Bande du Samie. Dressed in turquoise jackets as an homage to their namesake, they had modest success with their first album Plus de chansons sur les voitures et le sexe (More Songs about Cars and Sex). The band’s lead singer Enrique Veltrone would go on to have success as a film composer in Denmark and eventually paid 300,000 Euros at a Christie’s auction to purchase the “car actor” who played Samie. It was said to be the most important sale of a movie relic since Roger Ebert bought John Travolta’s suit from Saturday Night Fever.