Playtime (1967)

“Life is full of homages to Tati”*

originally intended as part of the 1967 in Film Blogathon

hosted by The Rosebud Cinema and Silver Screenings

(and then I got horribly sick—children are Petri dishes of contagion

—so it’s only, uh, three weeks late)

Anyway, check out the plethora of great posts from the Blogathon!

 

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French filmmaker Jacques Tati was only able to make six feature-length films, but each film, right from the beginning with Jour de fête (1949) and Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953), has the mark of comic genius. Tati’s films are immediately recognizable for their use of sound, their democracy of action (and lack of any significant plot), and exuberant Tati gags. Playtime (1967) is generally regarded as the director’s masterpiece. Originally running around 2 ½ hours, Tati eventually edited it down to just under two (and at least some of that edited footage is still missing).

Playtime is about people and their urban environment: buildings, technology, and other people. Tati was interested in people and their experience of space, and he was worried about how certain kinds of modern spaces were changing the way people interacted. The film takes pleasure in mocking our ability to thrive in the structures we’ve created and to manage the gadgets we fetishize. But there is always a gentleness to Tati’s mockery, much like Buster Keaton’s, a clear influence. And like many silent film artists, Tati turns his environment into art by manipulating how people and objects interact with each other. To make the world look and work the way he wanted it to, the director constructed his own town, dubbed “Tativille,” outside of Joinville, Haute-Marne, France. (Unfortunately, manipulation on this grand a scale bankrupted him when the picture didn’t do well at the box office.)

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Tativille looks suspiciously similar to our world, but like the obsessively constructed worlds in Vladimir Nabokov’s novels or Quentin Tarantino’s films (two much-less gentler geniuses), it is plainly not the real world. Each object, each line and curve has the potential to come to life at any moment. Everything (and everyone) is a prop in a Tati film, which may sound dehumanizing. But the overall effect of every Tati film is to humanize its setting and give its inhabitants (they don’t often rise to the level of characters) a space to be human—to socialize and experience pleasure. By the end of a Tati film, no matter how many mistakes have been made, no matter how much destruction has taken place, you are likely wishing his world were the real world. During the last 20 – 30 minutes of Playtime, the drably-colored, antiseptically-modernist environment breaks into a carnival-like chaos, with brightly colored decorations, a lot of drinking and dancing and socializing across classes and languages.

Beyond this shift, there is no plot to speak of—an American tourist named Barbara arrives in Paris with a tour group and Tati’s Monsieur Hulot has a business appointment are the closest thing to plot here—but there are recurring individuals. In addition to M. Hulot and Barbara, there  are the customer in the pharmacy-deli who turns out to be one of the jazz musicians at the Royal Garden nightclub, the man with whom Hulot has an appointment, M. Giffard, but keeps missing, an army buddy or two of Hulot’s, and so on.

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The architecture—all floor-to-ceiling glass walls and doors and endless grayish-blue cubicles (see the masthead above)—often has people on display but keeps them from interacting. Indeed, one of the film’s first gags is a worker trying to get a light from the porter of an office building, not realizing that there is a glass wall between them. Once people are outside these constructions, or they collapse, connections are made—Hulot runs into the army buddy he saw earlier but who was stuck in traffic; M. Giffard, out to walk his dog, finally sees Hulot on the sidewalk and they walk off together. Whatever they have to discuss is beside the point; the important thing is that they’ve finally gotten in touch.

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Spaces “deteriorate” in the last third of the film, creating new space more accommodating to these connections. The Royal Garden nightclub opens before it’s quite ready and the space just comes to pieces as tiles peel off the floor, waiters rip their uniforms on poorly designed chairs which are leaving marks on the backs of diners’ jackets and dresses, and finally the walls literally come down. Once the décor of the nightclub starts to come apart, the customers are able to mix with each other and with the workers, and to make their own music. The lengthy sequence is a justifiably famous set-piece. Similarly, the pharmacy-deli introduced in the last third of the film is a typical Tati mish-mash of spatial functions, resulting in sandwiches glowing green as they bask in the neon light of the pharmacy on the one hand while encouraging conversation and jollity on the other.

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From top left, the Royal Garden starts out looking pretty slick but things slide into a delightful chaos over the course of the evening.

In Playtime, there is never just one thing going on—there is a constant symphony of activity, and not just throughout the film but throughout the screen. Filmed in 70mm, “that grand epic format that covers the largest screens available with the most detail imaginable,” according to Roger Ebert, Playtime requires a big screen and rewards multiple viewings. It was filmed almost entirely in long shot; there are no closeups. A preponderance of frames are filled with activity in each field—foreground, medium ground, and background—or in every quadrant. Often the audience must decide where to look—our attention is not always directed to the unfolding of a particular event.

 

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Street lamps bloom like flowers on the road between Paris and the airport.

The soundtrack is likewise a panorama of traffic, conversations (often at a level we can’t quite hear), blips and bleeps, doors opening and closing. These noises create some of the humor and also suggest that everyday objects have developed their own personalities. Sound was always an integral part of Tati’s cinema—doors seems to have been a special favorite, starting in Vacances. Which makes sense, as so much of Tati’s narrative, in all of his films, is about collapsing boundaries. And the soundscape in Playtime does work something like its field of vision. We hear some ambient noises in the “foreground” more loudly than they’d be in real life, directing our attention to something on screen we might not otherwise notice.

playtime-curving-arrowTati loves shapes and colors, and you can tell even when he’s not using many—the interaction of shades of gray in Playtime are carefully orchestrated and make the colors that do appear in the last third of the movie especially captivating. One of the pleasures of Tativille is the constant matching of shapes and movements. When a tiny but very important man deplanes at the beginning of the film, a tag on his suitcase flaps in a nonexistent breeze inside the terminal. Later, at the Royal Garden, the maître d’s suit tails swing back and forth as though equipped with an invisible metronome. In the exhibitor gallery of a futuristic product expo, an absurdly statuesque woman demonstrates a pair of dark, thick-framed glasses whose lenses flip up separately, so that its wearer can apply makeup, one eye at a time. Shortly after that, we’re introduced to the owner of a firm that makes silent doors (more on this below), whose dark, thick-framed glasses later break in the middle, repeating the visual of the one-up, one-down lenses on the first pair of glasses. It is no accident that an accident creates the same effect that some company has mass-produced and offered for sale. Accidents frequently open an avenue between previously segregated groups of people.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHEOIVKdSPY?list=PLN607fMMBWWnp_WvOTW7sggodq-Nj3bvu&w=560&h=315]

One of my favorite gags in Playtime is the “Slam Your Doors in Golden Silence” bit towards the beginning of the film. Hulot (and the American tourists) walk through the expo, booths advertising the latest in mod cons.images These are all, of course, ridiculous contraptions that no one needs. There is the garbage can shaped like an ionic column. There is the desk lamp that offers different colored light. There is the vacuum cleaner with headlamps attached (wait a minute…I have one of those—though in my defense, the lights on mine are not the size of grapefruit). All these objects make delightful burping and metallic grunting noises.

Except for the silent doors.

The doors have been made with an insulated material and whatever sound they actually made when moving or closing seems not only to have been wiped from the soundtrack but maybe replaced with a noticeable silence. (Or maybe that’s just the effectiveness of the bit.) A faux Hulot (the film is filled with them) mistakes the silent door exhibit for an extension of an adjacent exhibitor selling office desks. While the door salesman is demonstrating the silence to a potential customer, the faux Hulot rifles through the desk, empties his pipe in the ashtray, and generally helps himself in a way most offensive to the salesman—who can’t do anything because he’s distracted by a sales prospect. The owner of the silent door company turns up a few moments later, and his salesman complains about the man in a hat and raincoat carrying a pipe. The salesman trots off and Hulot appears. The owner (the one whose glasses split) mistakes him for the impolite not-Hulot. The set-up is at least as funny as the pay-off, when the owner berates the oblivious Hulot. The mistaken-identity gag perhaps suggests Tati’s impatience with the popularity of the Hulot character. But the encounter is also one of several that eventually blossom into the revelry at the collapsing Royal Garden nightclub. And like the bumbling encounters that later bear fruit, the “golden silence” of the insulated doors is later replaced by the amiable cacophony of unplanned, unprogrammed conversation and music.

Towards the end of Playtime, Hulot is attempting to leave a small and crowded magasin with a gift for the American tourist. He maneuvers around a set of pot handles sticking into the aisle, only to be told he must go back and exit through a turnstile which now looks remarkably like…a bunch of pot handles sticking out. Hulot can’t reach her in time, but the encounter is saved by an intermediary who passes the souvenir to Barbara as she boards the bus for the airport. Playtime is overflowing with little gags like these, and they are exquisite in design and the joy they take in the physical world. The greatest thing about any excursion to Tativille is that infectious joy the audience brings back with them, and how it changes the way we look at our environment.

Photograph by André Dino.

Photograph by André Dino.

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMWq40YtexY&w=560&h=315]

* This post is dedicated to my parents, whose anniversary is July 14, Bastille Day. *

* Michael Chion, Senses of Cinema

 

Other Tati essays/tidbits:

Roger Ebert on Playtime, one of his Great Movies.

Le main droite de M Hulot about Tati’s collaborator, artist Jacques Lagrange, including details about his work on Playtime, by Kristin Thompson. (She argues elsewhere, convincingly, for the title as two words.)

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay on Playtime from Criterion.

David Bordwell’s post on “Funny Framings” starts off with a Tati example from Playtime.

Dan North’s post on Playtime: “Modern Life is Noisy”

TCM’s essay on Playtime.

“L’armée des ombres” (“Army of Shadows”) Snoopathon Part 2

In which I explain why Simone Signoret is amazing (and some other stuff).

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Director Jean-Pierre Melville is famous for his lack of female characters, and the few women who do populate his universe frankly don’t have much character. Women are generally superfluous in Melville’s films; he is fascinated by (and makes fascinating) relationships among men. So the fact that Simone Signoret’s Mathilde is crucial to “Army of Shadows” is itself an interesting aspect of the film. As much as Lino Ventura’s Gerbier grounds “Army of Shadows,” Signoret is its heart, insofar as anyone is allowed a heart in the underground world of the French Resistance. She is, as her colleagues remark, a magnificent woman—among other things, she engineers two extraordinary escapes for her comrades. She doesn’t tart herself up (or out)…but unlike Gerbier, she has an exploitable weakness: her daughter, of whom she carries a picture. She knows she shouldn’t carry it, but she does anyway. Is it sentiment? Or is it a refusal to allow the Nazis to make her act like her daughter—who knows nothing of her mother’s Resistance work—doesn’t exist? It is this photograph that dooms her when she is (inevitably) caught by the Nazis. (True to form, the Nazis threaten not to kill Mathilde’s daughter but rather to ship her off to the front as a prostitute.) Mathilde is released, but it is never clear whether she is buying her allies time so that they can kill her to prevent her informing on them, or if she is simply a human being protecting her child. She is somehow the steeliest and most vulnerable of the Resistance fighters.

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Ebert claimed in his review that Mathilde’s greatest moment of deception is during a mission at the Kommandantura to rescue the group’s comrade Félix (Paul Crauchet). Disguised as German nurse there to transport him to the Paris Gestapo, she sees on a poster that Gerbier is wanted by the police. We watch her eyes widen and then go blank, obscuring her emotion from the Germans. And it is pretty amazing. A few minutes later, after waiting inside the compound for the Germans to release Félix to her, a Nazi doctor informs her that it is impossible, that Félix is too close to death to travel. She simply nods, saying, “I’ll file a report.”

Most of the murders, like the torture, are offscreen. The murders of the informant Dounat (Alain Libolt) and of Mathilde are not. I wrote a bit about about Dounat’s murder in Part 1. Mathilde’s murder is its mirror image. Both victims have become dangerous to the Resistance—an informant and a future informant they can stop. Yet no one wants to kill either of them. Dounat’s murder is appallingly intimate, as Félix has to strangle him. Mathilde is shot from a short distance. They can both see what’s coming. Dounat, a terrified young man, breaks down; Mathilde doesn’t quite have time to fully react. Her expression when “le Bison” (Christian Barbier) points his gun at her from a car window is heartbreaking, but equally unfathomable. Is she shocked? Angry? Or simply afraid of dying? Mathilde is simultaneously a cipher and utterly sympathetic. This is, if not Signoret’s greatest moment in the film, close to it.

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Mathilde and Gerbier make an interesting pair. They are the two strongest fighters; they admire and care for each other. But they are quite different. Gerbier, stoical and dogged, never quite loses the aura of a man who has resigned himself to actions he can’t quite believe he’s taking, and that he suspects might be beyond his abilities.

Visually, “Army of Shadows” is a film of hallways and doorways. Hardly a scene goes by without a conspicuous doorway—open or shut, opaque or glass. Being a member of the Resistance means going through one doorway after another—usually without knowing what will happen next, whether or not this will be the room in which you are betrayed, in which you will die, or in which you will betray others. When Gerbier is running from the police, he ducks into a barber’s. The barber appears and sets about shaving him. As he lathers Gerbier, we both see the barber’s pro-Pétain poster. In a moment borrowed from Melville’s namesake, the barber holds Gerbier’s life in his hands as he shaves him.** We have no way of knowing if the barber is a Nazi sympathizer or if he has the poster up to avoid trouble. The barber insists on trading overcoats with Gerbier, to help him.

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Clockwise from top left, Gerbier during his second imprisonment; being escorted by the police to an interrogation; Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse) visiting Gerbier; and Jean-François returning to his apartment.

One of my favorite moments in the film is when Jean-François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) puts his hand on Félix’s shoulder in a bar filled with Nazi officers. We see Félix order a drink (straight rum? really?) at the bar. The camera is carefully placed so that the man sitting next to him at the bar is completely obscured by Félix himself. So, when we see a man’s hand slowly placed on Félix’s shoulder, we, and surely he, feel our stomach drop. Félix gingerly reaches into his pocket for a weapon? cyanide pills? And we realize that this is what it must be like all the time—this constant, almost subconscious waiting to be singled out and taken to your death. The brilliance of the scene is not only in the staging, but in the fact that the hand belongs not to one of the innumerable Nazis enjoying themselves, but to a friend, someone Félix trusts. Félix looks at Jean-François for a long moment before recognizing that he isn’t a threat, and relaxing. They are so genuinely fond of each other, it is for Félix that Jean-François eventually dies, having convinced the other fighters that he has run away.

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There are moments that seem unreal, and then there are details like the tape affixing Gerbier’s glasses to his face for his parachute drop back into France and the white bobby socks and loafers Mathilde wears during a meeting with Gerbier. These contradictions between sets that seem unreal and scenes filmed in real locations, between unconvincing special effects and that tape or those glasses, play a large part in creating an aura of surreality and the estrangement Resistance fighters must have felt from places and people that once seemed utterly unremarkable.

 

** From Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, in which a character who has led a slave revolt on a ship shaves his “master,” Benito, the putative captain of the ship, in front of someone (Captain Delano) who doesn’t know what’s going on. Benito is terrified.

“Setting down his basin, the Negro searched among the razors, as for the sharpest, and having found it, gave it an additional edge by expertly stropping it on the firm, smooth, oily skin of his open palm; he then made a gesture as if to begin, but midway stood suspended for an instant, one hand elevating the razor, the other professionally dabbling among the bubbling suds on the Spaniard’s lank neck. Not unaffected by the close sight of the gleaming steel, Don Benito nervously shuddered, his usual ghastliness was heightened by the lather, which lather, again, was intensified in its hue by the sootiness of the Negro’s body. Altogether the scene was somewhat peculiar, at least to Captain Delano, nor, as he saw the two thus postured, could he resist the vagary, that in the black he saw a headsman, and in the white, a man at the block. But this was one of those antic conceits, appearing and vanishing in a breath, from which, perhaps, the best regulated mind is not free.

Meantime the agitation of the Spaniard had a little loosened the bunting from around him, so that one broad fold swept curtain-like over the chair-arm to the floor, revealing, amid a profusion of armorial bars and ground-colours- black, blue and yellow- a closed castle in a blood-red field diagonal with a lion rampant in a white.

‘The castle and the lion,’ exclaimed Captain Delano- ‘why, Don Benito, this is the flag of Spain you use here. It’s well it’s only I, and not the King, that sees this,’ he added with a smile, ‘but’- turning toward the black,- ‘it’s all one, I suppose, so the colours be gay,’ which playful remark did not fail somewhat to tickle the Negro.

‘Now, master,’ he said, readjusting the flag, and pressing the head gently further back into the crotch of the chair; ‘now master,’ and the steel glanced nigh the throat.

Again Don Benito faintly shuddered.”

Snoopathon: L’armée des ombres (1969) Part 1

Once again, I seem to have chosen the one of the least typical examples of the genre for a genre-based blogathon. “L’armée des ombres” (“Army of Shadows”), Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film about a small group of French Resistance fighters during World War II, is undeniably a spy film. And yet it is strikingly unlike other examples of the genre.

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Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows”

Bursts of action happen only between long stretches of mostly silent waiting. The heroes make no perceptible progress against the enemy, managing little more than survival before the betrayal and death they each know is inevitable. As Roger Ebert said in his “Great Movies” review of the film, “This is not a war film. It is about a state of mind.”

As others have remarked, Melville’s film is both obviously artificial (particularly in its sets) and deeply intimate. The coexistence of what ought to be mutually exclusive characteristics is a consistent feature of Melville’s style, a feat critics have described as “difficult to explain” and “miraculous.” It gives his gangster films a kind of lived-in mythic quality, and it is an uncannily appropriate tone for a film about underground spies during an occupation. The résistants are estranged from their surroundings, and to a great extent from each other, though what they do couldn’t be more personal.

Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), center

Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), center, at the internment camp.

“Army of Shadows” is unmistakably Melville, but it is just as much Lino Ventura’s film (which is particularly interesting given that Melville and Ventura were not on speaking terms during filming). Ventura plays Philippe Gerbier, an electrical engineer operating as a chief of sorts in the Resistance. The film opens as Gerbier is being transported to the most painfully ironic internment camp in France, having been designed by the French for the Germans. The gendarme assures Gerbier he will be “all right” there, as it is “the best in France.” Gerbier gets the most screen time, and he is also the most solid, both physically and mentally, the most reliable spy.

When Gerbier arrives at the internment camp, it seems deserted. The camp director places him in an area originally reserved for German officials—a privilege not lost on Gerbier, who tells the director he is honored. But the following morning, the camp that appeared desolate the night before is teeming with many of the groups the Nazis rounded up—Jews of all nationalities, of course, but also anti-Fascists, Communists, gypsies, and black marketers, among others. (Unsurprisingly there is no mention of, say, gay or disabled prisoners.) When someone in Gerbier’s barracks dies, Kabyle prisoners, members of a Berber ethnic group in Algeria, come to take the corpse.

Jean-Francois Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) at the Kommandantur.

Jean-Francois Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) at the Kommandantur.

Taken to the Kommandantur, Gerbier manages an unlikely escape. From then on, the spies work mostly in the dark, literally as well as figuratively. And though the title refers to the spies themselves, it might as well refer to their environment. The rooms they voluntarily inhabit are shadowy, classic Melvillian palettes of blues and greys. The sound in the film is equally narrowed and heightened. As Gerbier waits for the right moment to distract a guard at the Kommandantur, for example, we suddenly hear the relentless ticking of a clock (and little else).

A common Melvillian motif is his male characters’ chapeaux. In “Army of Shadows,” these become subtle signs that the audience learns to read with the paranoid attention of a spy. Félix (Paul Crauchet), one of Gerbier’s soldiers, wears a bowler at important moments, first when he picks up Dounat (Alain Libolt), a member of the Resistance who betrayed Gerbier to the Germans. In order to avoid further betrayals, they of course will have to murder him. Félix hustles the doomed young man into the car and says to Gerbier, “Dirty job.” Gerbier replies, “You may dislike the hat, but you still have to wear it.” When Félix is later nabbed by the police, his bowler is knocked to the ground and left there. Gerbier, in London for a meeting with de Gaulle, hears of Félix’s arrest. He immediately leaves for France, abandoning his own hat in the London hotel room. Wearing the hat may be the right thing to do, but it is a dirty job, and, furthermore, one that will almost certainly kill you.

FélixEverything ordinary about these previously ordinary people has been circumscribed, calling to mind Yeats’s “Easter 1916.”

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Smiles have been reduced to nearly imperceptible facial tics. There are few safe places; their circle of friends has dwindled to a few fellow resistance fighters, who they know may betray them under Nazi torture. (This is a film that rewards multiple viewings, especially so that you can focus on the actors rather than the subtitles.) Indeed, sometimes even action is built around what the spies don’t know. A pair of brothers, one of whom is a Resistance leader (Paul Meurisse, astonishingly sly and completely open at the same time), never know they are working together. The younger brother, Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel, Vincent Cassel’s father), ultimately sacrifices himself—futilely and anonymously—for a comrade, having deceived his fellow fighters in order to help them. This combination of loyalty and fatalism will be familiar to anyone who’s watched “Bob le flambeur” (1956), “Le deuxième souffle” (1966), or “Le cercle rouge” (1970). Perhaps Melville’s own Resistance work is where some of this code comes from.

The most telling moment, in a film that seems full of them, might be the scene of the informant’s murder. Like many uncomfortable scenes, this one is drawn out, as the men must decide how to kill the terrified Dounat. Neighbors have moved in next door, so they can’t use their guns. (“The British should have sent the silencers,” one complains.) Dounat, barely more than a boy, must then listen as the men discuss possible methods. When a knife is suggested, a new member of the group, “Le masque,” protests, “Not like that!” confessing, “It’s my first time.” Gerbier wheels on him, horrified. “It’s our first time, too; isn’t that obvious?” One of the tragedies is that it isn’t at all obvious.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?

The Resistance fighters have become so used to confronting such situations that, even though no one wants Dounat to die, discussing his death appears rote, emotionless. The Mask (Claude Mann) is our stand-in at this moment, our way in to understanding, as far as we can, an impossible context.

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Coming up: Part 2, in which I explain why Simone Signoret is amazing in “Army in Shadows,” and some other stuff, like this:

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The “Austere Wickedness”* of Alain Delon

The Villain: Tom Ripley * The Movie: Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) 1960

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WvWnXwIMy husband refers to Alain Delon as “farcically good-looking,” and, really, Delon is so good-looking, it’s practically an insult. He was a mere 25 when he made Plein Soleil (known in English as Purple Noon for no good reason I can find) with director René Clément. Plein Soleil (which translates as Full Sun) is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s brilliant novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. In it, the father of Tom Ripley’s childhood friend Dickie Greenleaf (Philippe in the film) dispatches young Tom to Italy to bring Greenleaf fils home (to San Francisco, naturally), in exchange for $5,000.

This was Delon’s first big movie, and even if he weren’t very good, you can see why. But Delon is shockingly good. Delon’s Tom Ripley is not just youthful, he is a criminal novice. Much of the pleasure of both Patricia Highsmith’s first Ripley novel and of Plein Soleil is watching Tom come into his own as a sociopath.

Once in sun-drenched Italy, Tom enjoys the company of the rich and careless Philippe, or at least he enjoys helping Philippe spend his money. But Tom is eager for that promised $5,000. Unlike Philippe (Maurice Ronet), Tom does not come from money. Rather, he has a genius for insinuating himself into other people’s lives, and being whomever people expect him to be. Tom’s murder of Philippe a third of the way through the film is not merely—not even mostly—because Philippe won’t be a good boy and go home. In both the novel and the film, there is an uncomfortable, competitive homoerotic something-or-other going on between Tom and Philippe. If the desire is mostly on Tom’s side, Philippe does

Why does Philippe have a whip? Wouldn't you like to know?

Why does Philippe have a whip? Wouldn’t you like to know?

nothing to discourage it. Philippe is thoughtless in the way only rich people can be—other human beings and their feelings are not quite real to him. Philippe toys with Marge, a woman he appears to genuinely care for, as much as he tests Tom, to see how much humiliation he will take in exchange for that elusive $5,000. More than Tom wants Philippe, more even than Tom wants that $5,000, however, he wants to be Philippe. Or to be a much-improved version of him—a kinder, more considerate Greenleaf. And so Philippe has to go.

How does Tom get away with two cold-blooded murders (first Philippe and then the unappealing Freddy–an American pal of Philippe’s who sees more than Tom can afford for him to), not to mention an awful lot of forgery? Tom is so slight, and despite Delon’s “almost unearthly perfection,” so unassuming, so unthreatening. He actually tells Philippe he’s going to kill him, and until the moment Tom stabs him, Philippe doesn’t believe he will. However physically slight, Delon can radiate menace, as he does in Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterpiece, Le Samourai (1967), but here uses himself as bait—vulnerable, pretty, socially and sexually inferior to the confident and masculine Philippe. It’s a tightwire act of a performance. Tom isn’t interested in being Tom Ripley, at least not as the impoverished and apparently inferior creature he is at the beginning of the film. Instead, Tom tries out other identities, primarily Philippe’s. There is an enormously uncomfortable scene during which Tom tries to join in a make-out session Philippe is having with a woman they’ve picked up. Ick.

More pointed is the scene shortly after, back at Philippe and Marge’s apartment. After a typically inept attempt at a serenade, Tom is kicked out of the room so that Philippe and Marge can neck in private. Tom retreats to Philippe’s bedroom and begins trying on his clothes.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CuX8EpBcZus&w=560&h=315]

Here, the Tom Ripley we’ve met disappears behind a suitcase, and when he reappears, he is well on his way to being the other Ripley—both the man he was meant to be and somebody who can become another man as easily as a reptile sloughs off a layer of useless skin (perhaps these are the same person). He is a forger not merely of signatures but of whole identities. Part of the genius of this scene is that once Ripley is looking in the mirror, we can see Philippe’s feet and legs behind him in the mirror. Ripley is imitating Philippe based on his observations of Philippe, Philippe is watching Ripley’s imitation of himself, and we are watching both. This is Philippe’s first chance to escape his fate, but he fails to sense the danger in Tom’s role-playing, precisely because he sees Tom as pathetic. It’s an identity Tom finds it useful for Philippe to believe in, right up until he stabs Philippe and tosses his body into the sea.

Some reviewers, including the nearly infallible Roger Ebert, complained about the ending of the film, which appears to wuss out–having Tom arrested, whereas in the novel, he escapes, and carries on escaping, to our discomfort and not-so-secret enjoyment, in the subsequent Ripley novels. In this last scene, Delon’s Tom looks so happy, so confident, finally, that I always find it hard to believe he is going off, unknowingly, no less, to his downfall. Delon plays the end the way it should have ended, even if Clément is hiding some policemen around the corner. That is not the smile or the gait of a man about to be arrested. It is the carriage of a man who knows he is about to move smoothly, imperceptibly out of the way of danger, again.

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*David Thomson, “Delon @ 75

villain_stanwyckThis post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon!

Please check out some of the other fantastic posts, from Angela Lansbury: Mother of the Year to Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West to Waldo Lydecker, Laura and more baddies than you can think of!