Tuesday, November 28, 2017

René Clément | Plein soleil (Purple Noon, aka Blazing Sun)

hollow men

by Douglas Messerli

René Clément and Paul Gégauff (screenplay, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith), René Clément (director) Plein soleil (Purple Noon, aka UK, Blazing Sun) 1960, USA 1961

René Clément’s 1960 film, Purple Noon, is the first major movie role of the incredible beautiful (but later rightest-leaning, homophobe) actor, Alain Delon. I have to admit that when I was young I might have been in love with Delon, and this film, in particular, makes it clear why; even as a 13-year old, I might have secretly had a crush on him, even though I did not see this movie at the time. I believe I first saw him in The Yellow Rolls Royce, courting Shirley MacLaine, four years later.
      In this film, he plays the dreadfully charming murderer, Tom Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Ripley’s talents include his good looks, an incredible ability to deceive (including a gift a forging signatures), and his remarkable talent to imitate the ways of the wealthy whose lives he desires. But we have to wonder whether behind his lean, bronzed body, there is anything inside: the same question we might have asked of the actor himself, making him nearly perfect for this role.
    I haven’t seen the “re-make,” Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, but I just can’t imagine the cute Matt Damon as a convincing replacement for Delon.

   Delon is perfect simply because he is so desirable, as the wealthy Philippe Greanleaf (Maurice Ronet), not a bad looker himself, who obviously is equally self-involved (the director keeps their shirts unbuttoned for most of the film). The bond between them, at least at first and despite their open womanizing in Rome, is clearly homoerotic; they are beautiful men who like to hang out together, even if they might never come to terms with their hidden sexuality. Instead of making love, their sexual tensions are expressed in their mockery of, and in Greanleaf’s case, abuse of, one another.     
      If Ripley is evil, Greanleaf is detestable, which is how we come to side with the murderer as opposed to the victim. In the first scenes of Clément’s stunningly scenic film, the playboy Greanleaf has not only skipped out, without telling his “serious” girlfriend, Marge Duval (Marie Laforêt) that he is traveling to Rome, but treats Ripley like a lackey, forcing him to pay for their meal on the Felliniesque Via Veneto (where Marcello Mastriano hang out in La Dolce Vita, a film that shared with this one the music of Nino Rota). In short, they have run off together under the guise of a wild weekend, which consists primarily of conning a blind man, whose cane they take away as an award for Greanleaf’s charity, and lying to and basically kidnapping a woman, in order to publicly kiss and grope her in a kind of buddy gang-bang. It’s quite clear that they are not really interested in the middle-aged woman but in the sexual titillation of watching each other make love to her. When the always perceptive Ripley suggests that Greanleaf might pacify his back-home girlfriend, Marge, with a book on Fra Angelico, on whom she apparently is writing a book, he sends his lackey off to purchase the would-be gift of reconciliation.
      Only Greanleaf’s old friend, Freddy Miles (Billy Kearns) seems to immediately sniff out the potential evil-doings of Greanleaf’s supposedly childhood friend, a friendship that has evidently bought him a ticket to Europe by Greanleaf’s father to bring him back to the US. But the young heir is obviously having too much fun to ever want to return home to take over the family business. And besides, his father has awarded him the Adonis, Ripley.
      If these first scenes seem to suggest that Ripley is simply a hanger-on, enjoying the pleasures and power of being in a playboy’s company, we soon see a far darker side of the man when, back in France, he quietly invades Greanleaf’s bedroom, donning articles of the man’s clothing (shoes and a coat), to play out an imitation of his friend beside a mirror, making imaginary love not only to himself (a scene right out of Cocteau’s Orpheus) but to Greanleaf’s girlfriend Marge, one of the more creepy scenes in all of cinematic history. Not only has Ripley fetishzied his friend's garments but has adopted his personality. And once Greanleaf catches him performing that act, the balance between them quickly shifts with the playboy gradually beginning to play out a series of increasingly hostile “tests” of Ripley’s allegiance to him.

      As the threesome flee to Sicily on Greanleaf’s yacht, Ripley is forced to play a sailor boy, despite his obvious lack of experience, while his benefactor goes below to have sex with Marge. But even in his now obvious position as cabin boy, Ripley further shifts positions as he becomes a voyeur to Greanleaf’s acts, perhaps even tacitly with his master’s approval. But in further tests, wherein Greanleaf forces Ripley into a tethered dingy, which while, he and Marge are below, breaks free of its mooring, it is clear he has gone too far. When the yacht turns around to search for the missing dingy, finding Ripley seriously burned by the sun (the UK title of this film was Blazing Sun), everything has shifted once more.
     The tale now turns again into a kind of revenge love tragedy, as Ripley plants an earring from their Rome encounter into Marge’s clothes, which results in her own rage for Greanleaf’s behavior and her dismissal from the yacht at the very next island stop. Now Ripley truly does have Greanleaf to himself, but rather than consummating their relationship plays out the revenge, even sharing part of the plot with his would-be victim, finally stabling him to death and tossing his body into the sea.
Image result for Purple Noon movie       For me, the rest of the movie (in apposition to some critics who saw the earlier scenes as uninteresting), where Ripley quite successfully takes over Greanleaf’s identity, even bedding Marge, is far less interesting, reminding me some of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. Much like that character, Ripley successfully forges  Greanleaf’s passport, assumes his personality, and lives, at least for a while, the highlife on Greanleaf’s own fortune. It’s all very clever and very much like a Jean-Pierre Melville catalogue of what a truly intelligent deceiver is able to accomplish. But as a character, Ripley no longer exists: he has become a version of Greanleaf, a not very-likeable figure in the first place, about whom we no longer care. The beautiful rooms and houses he inhabits are as hollow as the man, who later also kills Greanleaf’s friend, Freddy, in order to protect his new identity.
      A true humanist, Clément could not permit in his film for Ripley to get away with his murders, which Highsmith had. But by that time, I suggest, we have lost most of our fascination with this formerly passionate desirer, who has now simply become a facsimile of the despicable man he longed for and admired. It merely demonstrates Ripley’s failure to imagine or live out his own possibilities for doing something else in the world, choosing, instead, to envy what he doesn’t have, a true personality. In the end, we realize, he is simply a skilled imitator, like so many of Eliot’s walking dead in The Wasteland. So pretty, but staring down at his borrowed shoes, so hollow after all.  

Los Angeles, November 28, 2017
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2017

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