Monday 2 March 2015

On DVD (2) - Plein Soleil - Highsmith, Delon, Clement and the quintessential Tom Ripley

For a brief moment the film earned Clement the reputation of a French Hitchcock, a path he pursued with diminishing success thereafter. What he was not able to find again was Plein Soleil's singular grace, a lightness of touch, a nearly comic elation operating in odd but harmonious counterpoint to its motifs of cruelty, envy, unappeasable longing and mad calculation. Small wonder that the alchemy by which such unlike elements are fused here proved impossible to recapture. If Plein Soleil lends itself to repeated viewings, its because we cant find its particular insidious shade of pleasure anywhere else.

The paragraph, the last of a couple of thousand word essay, is so good there is no point in trying to find other words to sum up the pleasure it invokes. It was written by Geoffrey O'Brien, an irregular film and other critic in the pages of the New York Review and elsewhere. The essay is part of the booklet issued with the Criterion Blu-ray edition of Rene Clement's Plein Soleil/Purple Noon/Full Sun (France/Italy, 1960). The booklet also includes a translated interview with Clement taken from a 1981 issue of "L'Avant-scene du cinema", a French monthly devoted to the publication of film scripts and associated material.

Clement wanted Delon for the Ripley role, he says in 1981, notwithstanding that the actor was little known and the few films he had made were undistinguished. Once the public had a chance to assess Plein Soleil, Delon was a star. One of the extras on the disc is an interview with a chronicler of Clement's career, a fast, indeed metronomic, talker named Denitza Bantcheva. Among the multitudes of info offered, she puts the moment when Delon transformed from pretty boy leading man into a handsome star at precisely the point in the film when he is ordered out of the ship's cabin and, in a rage, strips off his shirt and sullenly sets himself down and takes the wheel of the boat. Such impossible tanned beauty accompanies a glare with the camera at a low angle to show the figure against, mostly anyway, a a clear blue sky. Electric.

There are two other extras on the disc, a short interview with Delon in which he expresses a preference to choose directors rather than scripts or projects. By this time Delon was a star  and among those directors he didn't choose to work with was every major name of the French New Wave. In the early 60s, however he had chosen Antonioni and Visconti and he returned to Clement on four other occasions. In 1967 that he went to work for Jean-Pierre Melville, for whom he made three of his most highly regarded movies. In 1990, he was in Godard's Nouvelle Vague, the first time he worked with one of the major figures who emerged at the same time as Delon, way back in the late 50s and early 60s.

The final extra on the disc is a 1971 interview with Patricia Highsmith, by then a resident of France and reasonably relaxed speaking French throughout. It's an item from a French TV program, shot in  in and around Highsmith's home at the time, a modest house backing onto a canal where working barges chug past, somewhere in the backblocks. It was not luxury living for a writer who at that time was fifty years old and had published 14 novels and a single collection of short stories. Three of those novels had been turned into movies and the rights had been sold to two others which were in turnaround. Highsmith explains all this in some detail and lets us know that she thinks Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train  was the best of them, notwithstanding the major liberties Hitchcock and his scriptwriter Raymond Chandler took with the story. Clement too fiddled with his adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley. The only other film adaptation was Claude Autant-Lara's film of The Blunderer, a German-French co-production, (Der Morder/Le Meurtrier) made in 1962. Highsmith's dismissal of the film as one which showed no imagination in sticking to the book is interesting. This film seemed to have almost completely disappeared but about a year ago someone uploaded a German language copy, unfortunately without any subtitles on Youtube which you can find here Maurice Ronet, who plays the unfortunate Philippe Greenleaf in Plein Soleil  has a role in Le Meutrier as well.

The black and white film is a brief portrait of the artist well and truly into middle-age. Her looks have coarsened from the glamour she displayed as a young woman when she wrote those first novels (including the pseudonymous The Price of Salt). She was a heavy smoker and drinker for much of her life and it was showing. But in her work she maintained what she had early settled into, a style of flat prose, rarely using adjectives, that analysed 'the effect of guilt on her characters'. The portrait of Highsmith, defensive and severe, nervous at times is a terrific addition to the coloured brilliance of Henri Decae's colour photography of a glorious Italian summer, restored here in all its glory.

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