Thursday, 9 July 2020

On one of the many apparitions of Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley - John Baxter re-acquaints with John Malkovich's impersonation in RIPLEY'S GAME (Liliana Cavani, Italy/UK/US, 2002)

Patricia Highsmith
If one experiences a twinge of alarm at the occasional sight of John Malkovich solemnly pedaling his old-fashioned upright bicycle down Boulevard St Germain, it’s attributable to his performance in this little-known contribution to Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley saga 
The story develops so naturally that only in retrospect does its true evil becomes apparent. Ripley is enjoying the luxury of a Palladian villa in rural Italy and a sleek wife (Chiara Caselli), who is also a harpsichord virtuoso, when a local expat, Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott), casually insults him at a party. Trevanny is dying from leukemia and needs money to provide for his wife and child, so when Reeves, a former partner in crime (a marvellously vulgar Ray Winstone) needs someone killed, Ripley, mostly, it seems, to amuse himself, proposes Trevanny for the job and nudges him into taking it. 
Thereafter, the story speeds down corridors of carnage, with numerous low-lifes shot, garrotted, caught in mantraps and beaten to death with blunt objects. With each death, Trevanny becomes a little more comfortable with killing, and begins to look up to Ripley as his sensei: aninstructor not only in technique but in the philosophy that underpins it. To Ripley, who has no moral compass, the whole thing is another round in the game that is his life. When it’s someone else’s turn with the dice, he gets on with his chores, pausing, for instance, in the middle of incinerating the morning’s harvest of corpses to call a florist and order peonies for his wife’s concert. This element is better captured in the film’s French title Ripley s’amuse : Ripley Amuses Himself or, more precisely, Ripley Has Some Fun.
John Malkovich, Dougray Scott, Ripley's Game
However much there is to admire in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and René Clément’s Plein Soleil, aka Purple Noon, neither captures the sociopathic chill of Highsmith’s original. [I’m less familiar with Wim Wenders’ The American Friend and Roger Spottiswoode’s Ripley Underground.] Matt Damon is too much the upwardly mobile yuppie, impatient for his unearned rewards, and Alain Delon the mindless satyr, greedy for life. The way Delon dives below on the yacht where he had just murdered Maurice Ronet and returns to bite into a ripe peach as he takes the wheel says everything we need to know about his moral landscape. As for Damon, he reminds one of Lucy in Peanuts and her petulant “All I want is what’s coming to me.”  Neither offers any insight into the reasons behind their murders and lies. The acts justify themselves 
"upwardly mobile yuppie"...Matt Damon,
The Talented Mr Ripley
Malkovich’s Ripley has arrived at a measured assessment of his nature, and that of the world in which he lives. When the innocent Trevanny asks how he can kill with such sang froid, Ripley replies “I lack your conscience - and when I was young that troubled me. It no longer does. I don't worry about being caught because I don't believe anyone is watching.“ Being so little involved allows him to toss off non sequiturs with faultless deadpan. After garrotting two men in the toilet of the Berlin-Dusseldorf express and almost killing a third, he muses “It never used to be this crowded in first class.” Warning Trevanny of possible repercussions, he concedes thoughtfully that those seeking retribution will target him rather then Trevanny because “these Balkan types tend to take strangling quite personally.” 
Ripley’s lack of guilt or scruple is implicit in his sideways glances in the midst of an act of violence, his way of pausing in the midst of a skirmish to run an appreciative finger down the curve of a thigh in a mural, and in the casual way he imposes his will with a few evenly modulated words, evenly repeated. Trevanny sneers at a party that he has “too much money and no taste,” Ripley, expressionless, simply enquires “Meaning?” Trevanny offers a kind of explanation. Ripley repeats “Meaning?” and continues to do so until Trevanny flees the scene. Later, when Ripley’s wife, as they start to make love, asks how he intends to act in a certain situation, he says “Turn over and I’ll tell you” and repeats the order until she surrenders with a contented sigh to the sure, if cruel, touch of a skilled handler.
“Turn over and I’ll tell you.” John Malkovich, Chiara Caselli
Assigning credit for this chill and glittering exercise in amorality is not easy. Director Liliana Cavani co-wrote the screenplay with Charles McKeown, author of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but clearly the complex portrait of Ripley owes almost everything to Malkovich. He also took over when Cavani left to direct an opera at La Scala, and is responsible for about a third of the completed film, which was never given a cinema release in North America and barely seen elsewhere. Fortunately a 2004 DVD does justice to the wintry Italian landscapes and the silky, truffled luxury of Ripley’s existence. If life is indeed no more than a game, this is one of the most agreeable ways in which it can be played. 
Alain Delon, Plein Soleil

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