Ripley's Game

All style, all surface, all purity - and no nonsense
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The Independent Culture

Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman nailed it in Being John Malkovich when they showed us the Hollywood actor, in a fit of boredom befitting a true fin de siècle decadent, ordering towels by telephone. If you'd ever wondered what was the point of Malkovich, this scene made you ask what was the point, for Malkovich himself, of appearing in films? For so long, he had seemed exquisitely fatigued by the whole business: you imagined he probably would sooner leaf through bathroom catalogues on his chaise longue than lower himself further into the mire of screen acting.

If an actor ever needed redemption, ever needed to prove that he still had some business turning up for work, Ripley's Game is Malkovich's vindication. As soon as we see him loitering around Berlin in raincoat and beret, enunciating like a lizard just woken from millennial slumber, we know that Malkovich is bringing more of himself - more dry amusement and less contempt - than to any film he has made in ages. He has a perfect foil, too, in Ray Winstone - a pairing as probable as Frasier Crane and the Pub Landlord. "Don't fuck me over 'ere, prat," growls Winstone. To which Malkovich purrs, "Don't threaten me. I'm not the one wearing an earring."

Ripley's Game is an adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel, with Malkovich as the protean, sociopathic anti-hero Tom Ripley. We find Ripley living in Italy in a Palladian villa, and aggrieved at the reappearance of his thuggish former associate Reeves (Winstone), who wants a man killed. Ripley volunteers innocent English picture framer Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott) for the job, purely because Trevanny had accused him, behind his back, of lacking taste. That Ripley lands Trevanny in the nastiest trouble is merely his idea of casual fun. But Reeves pulls Trevanny - who is dying of leukaemia - in too far, and Ripley takes a hand. Reeves has broken the rules of the game - Ripley's game and no one else's - and in doing so, has shown appalling taste. Taste, in fact, is what Liliana Cavani's film is really about, although it may not be the first quality you associate with the half-forgotten Italian director, best known for The Night Porter, that totemic Holocaust-chic shocker of the Seventies. Ripley's Game, however, is like Ripley itself - subtle and finely controlled, not least in its excesses.

In his epicure perfection, the American expat Ripley is more European than the Europeans, and it's no accident that, more than any other Malkovich part, this one echoes the cold-blooded aesthete Gilbert Osmond in Jane Campion's Henry James adaptation, The Portrait of a Lady. Malkovich glides, with sublime let's-get-this-over-with-superciliousness, through his role as a monster of suavity. This is a killer who after torching a load of bodies in a car, phones to order his wife some peonies; who relaxes with a spot of needlepoint; who proudly presents a soufflé he has made as a hommage, if you please, to his own culinary brilliance. You wonder just how close to self-portrait, or self-parody, this all is, or how many off-hand, glacially delivered lines ("I'm chuffed") Malkovich contributed.

In some respects, Ripley is a sniff away from a Bond villain: in the film's one outrageous conceit, he sits down to play harpsichord with his wife (Chiara Caselli), embroidering her baroque chords with Jacques Loussier-like jazz lines. This is where the film will strike some as an ambassadorial plate of Ferrero Rocher, but if you're prepared to take Ripley's Game on its own terms, such moments bring a proud dash of casual grace. The film is an essay in ironic balance: Ripley may be ludicrous, but he's no poseur because he's genuine and, within his own frames of reference, represents the only possible attitude to the world: anything else, whether Reeves's brutishness or Trevanny's bland Hampstead-in-Veneto gentility, is shoddy, ersatz. Dougray Scott convincingly plays Ripley's pawn with a neurotic dash of Hugh Grant's enervated floppiness. Trevanny is not gross like Reeves, just lacking in polish - we feel that he is punished partly for listening to indie-pop rather than Scarlatti. Ripley represents the definition of a sociopath as someone who makes moral judgements on the grounds of style, of whether or not someone is boring. Much of cinema encourages us to see things in just this way - to marvel at glamorous freaks while finding everyday people repellently dull. Cavani highlights that tendency and makes us question it; by the end, however, we don't despise, pity or even reject Ripley, we just wonder how he gets through life with such a painfully low boredom threshold.

The film itself, for all its old-Europe chic, is entirely unglossy: Northern Italy is shot in frostily mundane shades of grey. The film appears to be practically without style: it's shot and edited as tersely, indeed anonymously as possible, so that Cavani seems to be doing her job and nothing more. There are no Hitchcockian flourishes, no sly winks, but there are fine insightful touches: a glimpse of a portly shoe-seller surreptitiously sniffing Mrs Trevanny's (Lena Headey's) legs, or a soundtrack chorus of clicks and hums when Trevanny kills a man in the zoo insect house, as if to signal that we've entered an alien realm of insect morality. To fancy up or ironise this story (Ripley's is the only ironic consciousness here) really would have been in the worst taste, and the fact that Cavani packages everything like a mid-Seventies TV thriller - down to Ennio Morricone's sardonically retro score - makes for a purely functional style. Yet it is that functionality that distinguishes the film, in stark contrast to Jonathan Demme's recent desperate-to-amuse Euro-thriller The Truth About Charlie, which lacked either dignity or conviction (and also proved that no American stars other than Malkovich should even attempt to wear berets in Europe).

On the surface, Cavani's film seems like classy pulp, the screen equivalent of a rather staid airport novel. And this might seem a little foreign to the way we think of Highsmith these days - as "proper" literature, not just throwaway genre stuff. Where Anthony Minghella, in The Talented Mr Ripley, went out of his way to elevate Highsmith by giving Ripley a painstakingly-limned and poignant deep psychology, Cavani treats the character as all style, all surface, an inscrutable existential actor. Her film succeeds precisely because of its lack of pretension, its purity: like Ripley himself, Cavani operates with a scrupulous minimum of fuss.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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