Inaction man

Chris Darke celebrates the ambiguous on-screen persona of Alain Delon, French cinema's most impassive star

As the French film journal Cahiers du cinema pointed out in a lengthy interview with Alain Delon published last April, the actor's surname is an anagram of le don - "the gift". And the gift that set Delon apart during the Sixties is now once again on display, thanks to the re-release of Rene Clement's 1960 film Plein Soleil. An adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr Ripley, in which Delon plays the seductively sociopathic anti-hero, Plein Soleil was Delon's break-through film. Before it, he had been identified, along with Jean-Paul Belmondo, as an up-and-coming jeune premier (leading man) of the French cinema and, in his early career, he had adorned a number of lightweight romantic comedies. In the same year as Plein Soleil appeared, Belmondo went on to shoot A bout de souffle with Jean-Luc Godard and found himself transformed into an acteur-fetiche of the French New Wave. Delon would never be as directly associated with that explosive moment of cinematic creativity as Belmondo, but with Plein Soleil his international career was assured. Clement's film revealed Delon in his coldly angelic prime, capturing that quality of ambiguity that was to define the actor's persona for the rest of his career and that so admirably suited this Highsmith adaptation.

The novel's hero, Tom Ripley, has been entrusted with the task of bringing Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), the errant son of a wealthy American father, back home from Italy. Moving between Rome and the Amalfi coast, the action opens with Ripley impressing Greenleaf with his talent for forging signatures. It's a skill that grows into a fully fledged and deadly imposture: Ripley murders Greenleaf and assumes his identity. His intention is to harvest the dead man's wealth as well as his girlfriend, Marge (Marie Laforet).

Delon plays Ripley as a purely reflexive schemer, shading his character so that the desired outcome of Ripley's subterfuge - easy access to the idle-rich lifestyle - seems only slightly less important than acquitting himself elegantly in the game of deceit. But there's an ugly edge here, too. It's something hinted at by the American critic Donald Lyons, who wrote that the film "posits, in a coyly Nietzschian way, the right of beauty to legislate its own existence". And if that includes rubbing out a few of the less beautiful people, then so be it. Beaute oblige.

There's also a sense in which, in his rapt concentration on his star, Clement seems almost to be endorsing this quasi-fascistic identification with Ripley the ubermensch. Perhaps that explains why, at the end of the film, Delon gets his comeuppance, whereas Highsmith's novel lets Ripley get away with it.

In many ways, Plein Soleil reads like a documentary about Delon, both a beady observation of a gifted screen animal and a closely choreographed ballet of dissimulating gestures and movements. Delon here has a physical presence and dynamism that are compelling to watch: in that respect the film is a study of on-screen grace.

Throughout his career, Delon remained unstinting in his praise of Clement, calling him "his master". He has decribed how Clement directed him on Plein Soleil: "He showed me the sets and said, `Go on, throw yourself about. Move!' He manipulated me like a marionette." But, beneath the athleticism of his performance, there is a stillness, a watchfulness that make Delon's Ripley an enigma.

This combination would be reprised throughout his career, frequently under the guidance of major auteur puppet-masters. There would be his association with Visconti on Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and The Leopard (1963); with Antonioni on The Eclipse (1962), where Delon's petulant dynamism is at odds with the usual anguish of the Italian director's male characters; with Joseph Losey on The Assassination of Trotsky (1972) and Mr Klein (1976); above all, with the great French thriller director Jean-Pierre Melville.

Delon made three films with Melville, including the seminal Le Samourai of 1967, in which Delon's performance as the hired killer Jeff Costello attains an almost Zen-like stillness. Both Plein Soleil and Le Samourai are "procedural" films, in that they are both obsessed with the preparation and execution of crimes, but Melville abstracted all but the most glacial element of Delon's menace and did so to tremendous iconic effect.

Delon's quality of tough-guy stillness is often summed up by the short- hand description "laconic" - for which read "Say little, do less". And it's true that he shares qualities with both Robert Mitchum and John Garfield (Delon has spoken of Garfield as "his model") as well as with a more immediate peer in Jean-Louis Trintignant - always more an "actor" than a "star" in France but still distinguishing himself in the same territory of cold- eyed misanthropy.

Delon's persona has been crystallised by well-publicised associations that have played up the element of menace in his on-screen performances. In 1969 he was implicated in a drugs scandal and admitted to having been involved with the Marseilles mafia, whose past he mythologised (alongside Belmondo) in the hugely succesful historical crime caper Borsalino (1970). Then there's his background seen as "myth" - those details of a past that stars will deliberately emphasise to enhance their image. Delon's is an interesting one. "I fell into cinema," he has said. He'd been a parachutist in Indo-China at the age of 18, trained as a boxer for Rocco and His Brothers, remains a vocal friend of the Gaullist right-wing and makes no secret of his admiration for the military. It's this mixture of individualist and adventurer, with a strong authoritarian streak, that he capitalised upon throughout the 1970s in a series of frequently self-produced cop films.

Plein Soleil is not normally considered as a New Wave film. In fact, Clement himself was regarded by the New Wave as a prime exponent of "le cinema de papa", a derisive epithet for the 1950s style of French movie- making, with its devotion to the virtues of solid craftsmanship and literary source texts. It was against this perceivedly moribund establishment that the New Wavers declared Oedipal war. Yet it was clear that, with Plein Soleil, Clement wanted in. This may have been the reflex of a director smart enough to notice the tide turning and deciding to surf the new currents. But in his use of cinematographer Henri Decae, who shot Truffaut's 1959 break-through film Les Quatre Cents Coups, and of Paul Gegauff, Claude Chabrol's script collaborator, as his co-screenwriter, Clement declared his desire to be part of the new French cinema. And, in casting Delon, who was still something of a new face at the time, he found his equivalent to Belmondo.

While Clement's film has none of the freewheeling, experimental joy that the New Wave directors demonstrated, there's a kind of kinship between the characters of Belmondo's Michel Poiccard in Godard's A bout de souffle and Delon's Ripley in Plein Soleil. Both are early Sixties images of young men on the make who are prepared to go all the way to get what they want. Both films are intrigued by the existential consequences of this will- to-power and both, in the traditional French noir scheme of things, have their anti-heroes pay for their ambitions. Henri Decae's Eastmancolor cinematography gives Clement's film a texture that, viewed today, is as immersively colourful as a 1960s picture postcard. Fakery, again. A simulacrum without shadow, the perfect frame in which to claustrophobically depict a criminal at work.

Delon's career since his Sixties heyday has looked increasingly like a balancing act between maintaining his status as mainstream vedette and continuing to diversify with appearances in auteur films. An attempt at a Hollywood career in the mid-1960s yielded unspectacular results and his European career foundered in the 1980s. An attempt at a comeback with the 1992 fllm Le Retour de Casanova (The Return of Casanova), in which Delon starred as the ageing Italian roue, failed to attract audiences on the strength of his name alone. Curiously enough, it was Delon's long- awaited collaboration with a former New Wave director, Jean-Luc Godard, in Nouvelle Vague (1990) that gives the best account of late-period Delon. And Godard, as is his habit, quotes freely from Plein Soleil in his own film's motif of death by drowning and in Delon's character of an ambiguous interloper among a group of wealthy business people.

"I wanted to film Delon as if he was a tree," Godard has explained. The commanding stillness of the Delon persona is still on view in Nouvelle Vague but is layered now with melancholy and the sense of a man internally exiled through his own narcissism.

`Plein Soleil' is now showing in London at the Screen on the Green (0171- 226 3520), the Everyman (0171-435 1525) and the Curzon Phoenix (0171-369 1721)

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