One of the most terrible things in cinema happens when an ostensible masterpiece gets under-appreciated. Not that René Clément’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley has been left unacknowledged throughout the decades – it’s just not appreciated enough. Aside from Martin Scorcese, who championed a theatrical re-release in 1996, there’s barely anyone who climb on top of their critical rooftops and shout wild praises for this film as one of the most greatest ever made. Instead, it’s mostly written off and pigeonholed as that “sexy French thriller” with Alain Delon, made more popular in a remake by Anthony Minghella with Matt Damon. Now restored into a pristine print courtesy of Studiocanal and also receiving a bow in Cannes Classics sidebar this year, perhaps it’s about time to re-assess our critical opinions about this exquisite piece of cinema that’s just beyond mere sexy, French and thrilling.
Arguably vastly superior to Minghella’s later revision, Clément’s work here is a spellbinding compendium of deft storytelling, sublime character portrait, technical craft, ravishing cinematography by Henri Decaë (who photographed François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows) and a certain command in style that shames even Minghella’s most grandiose strokes. Despite not having read Highsmith’s source material, my reliable sources proclaim that Clément’s version has taken liberties in changing some elements in the film, eschewing the homoerotic subtext between the slippery anti-hero Tom Ripley and nonchalant playboy Philippe Greenleaf, and rather pining for a subtly tailoured class war between the under-privileged and the nouveau riche. Here, the Italian coast of Salerno is magnificently photographed as a lair of the affluent – handsome, white, rich people perennially idling on their yachts with their sun-kissed skin, their carefree existence weightlessly floating around the azure sea. Ripley is a trespasser to this opulent colony, and as he inveigles his way into the lives of Greenleaf and his passive-aggressive girlfriend Marge, it’s almost inevitable that this outsider, this dreamer, surreptitiously covets this kind of life, seduced into the notions of decadence and self-indulgence that going back into a lowly, penniless life is practically out of the option.
The desire to be somebody else is the central theme of Plein Soleil (literally translated Blazing Sun, and inexplicably Purple Noon in the American release), and Clément sticks to his guns throughout the piece. When this was unveiled in 1960, right at the heights of the French New Wave, Clément was critically attacked by none other than Cahiers de Cinéma critic and Nouvelle Vague auteur François Truffaut for being part of that cinéma du papa breed of directors who churn adaptations after another. And yet somehow Truffaut missed the point that Clément was trying to make in Plein Soleil – that despite this being an adaptation, it’s the seamless storytelling that matters. Clément’s masterful direction here jettisons that self-conscious auteurist approach in favour of the cinematic form and narrative first and foremost. The story of Ripley is so precisely detailed and elaborated, set alongside a filmmaking style that’s both assured and unaffected, making a compelling, totally engrossing watch. Witness carefully the murder sequence for instance – there are no jump-cuts and fast-forwards, but rather show us the long, laboured logistics of disposing a corpse from a yacht amid the lashing Meditteranean waves. And later on, when Ripley kills off another character, we are subjected to a cruel, painstaking sequence of dragging the body down a hotel staircase – all for the sake of narrative verisimilitude. Clément does not cheat on his audience, and renders us essentially voyeurs to Ripley’s ascendancy to madness, while we question his character desires, the price of pursuing those desires, as well as the idea of cinema as ‘desire’.
The devastatingly beautiful Alain Delon in his first major role dominates most of Plein Soleil‘s screen time, luring us all in to his cool, impeccably calibrated charisma and yet still remaining inscrutable, altogether enigmatic and knowing. His Ripley is a far cry from Matt Damon’s incarnation (whom I believe, to this day, is miscast for the role), and far more elusive a character to pin down. Damon’s interpretation is that of a man who cannot face rejection, a figure of emotional insecurity and low self-esteem whereas Delon’s is that of a watchful, calculating observer at the back of the crowd, carefully learning the weak points of everyone around him and staking them when the right moment comes. He’s an opportunist in every way possible, a victim of his own amoral desires and also equally a victim of seductive opulence around him. It’s a far more powerful performance, made more sensually charged by Delon’s Adonis-like qualities. This is a character who uses his beauty both as a lure and a weapon. It’s no wonder why Ripley transforms from a mere watcher, a quiet spectator, into dominating every inch of the frame as an active agent of narrative. He lies, cheats, deceives, kills, steals people’s lives all because it’s better than being a nobody who has nothing. In respect to this, the closest Plein Soleil comes to in film language is film noir, albeit one set in broad Italian daylight. At its heart is a morally ambiguous anti-hero with a reprehensible motive, but made emphatic to us through grounded, psychologically realised characterisation. That, in itself, is a testament to this film’s myriad accomplishments. The final shot is fitting then, as Ripley basks under the blazing sun in his serene sense of achievement, oblivious to a darkness that’s about to befall, ending in an opportune moment when he’s at the height of his powers. Freeze-frame to the glorious coast behind him – the sun, the sand, the beach, the glamour and beauty – held aloft in a place where even the hardest of men emerge transformed, for better or worse.
Plein Soleil is re-released in selected UK cinemas with a newly restored print on 30th August, and out on DVD and Blu-ray on 9th September.[separator type=”space”] DIRECTOR: René Clément | CAST: Alain Delon, Maurice Ronet, Marie Laforêt | SCREENPLAY: René Clément | DISTRIBUTOR: Studiocanal | RUNNING-TIME: 118 mins | GENRE: Drama | COUNTRY: France