Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Plein Soleil (and The Talented Mr. Ripley)

Plein Soleil withholds. René Clément's film, loosely based on the book The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, centres around the various cruelties manifested by Alain Delon's Tom Ripley, a beautiful but empty young man who regards other people with a detached curiosity. Plein Soleil maps out a power imbalance, one between the rich, feckless, Phillipe Greenleaf, played by Maurice Ronet, and Delon's Ripley, an old school friend employed by Greenleaf's father to extract Phillipe from his European jaunt then return him home to San Francisco. Phillipe bullies and babies Ripley, treating him, essentially, like staff. Ripley is to observe and catalogue, not participate in, this lifestyle. In a private moment with his girlfriend, Phillipe states outright that he has no memory of Ripley, despite Tom's nostalgic musings on their childhood relationship. The statement proving either that Ripley has wholly manufactured a foothold in Greenleaf's life or that the young man was so without note that Greenleaf has simply forgotten that he existed. 

Anthony Minghella's 1999 adaptation, The Talented Mr. Ripley, lasered in on the central criminal's ego - bruised by his lack of financial options - then plotted itself around the violent fussiness required to maintain the character's crumbling façade. Matt Damon's Ripley is explicitly gay too, summoning up the courage to murder the object of his desire when his advances are not reciprocated. Clément's take, co-written with Paul Gégauff, never allow us to experience that kind of personal longing within Ripley. Phillipe - before he is violently stabbed - is closer to an obstacle than a beloved, the distasteful task between Ripley and the assumption of riches. Similarly, Marie Laforêt's Marge, Phillipe's gloomy fiancée, is less the prize at the end of this long, serpentine, con and more an amenity that Tom can use up then tick off before seeing where his gift for homicidal assimilation will take him next. Minghella's film is almost heroic by comparison: Tom positioned as a working class striver, slowly weaponising the incestuous web of the upper classes so that he can scratch out some physical or emotional space that belongs to him. His mistakes and failings are human, predicated on a longing to assume a station he was not born into and is therefore not fluent in. 

Delon's performance is colder and far crueller, a confident alien who sinks himself into a counterfeit life and lifestyle, but not before he has calmly laid out the method by which he will take over his quarry's identity. He rejects Phillipe's clumsy attempts to buy him off, happy to forgo a generous bribe - the same amount promised by Greenleaf Sr should Tom succeed in convincing Phillipe to come home to the United States - so he can plunge his diving knife into Phillipe's body and claim the whole pot. While Damon's Ripley is a bumbler with a gift for impersonation, Delon's is brazen, supplementing his good looks and easy charm with a methodical approach to the sort of detailed reproduction required to steer him through the jeopardies he relentlessly generates. The crimes in Minghella's film are opportunistic, born out of acute emotional distress; those in Clément's are laboriously pre-meditated, perhaps envisioned while suffering through Phillipe's barking moods. After one too many murders, when the police really start sniffing around, Soleil's Ripley forges a suicide note from Phillipe, leaving a sizable sum of money to Marge. He uses this transaction as a way to break a chain of deceit, simplifying his route to riches. He no longer has to maintain two separate identities - one of which has become needlessly complicated with bloodshed - or sell off a boat he doesn't actually own. He can revert back to handsome Tom Ripley, unbutton his shirt, then seduce a grieving Marge instead.  

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