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Alain Delon

Ambivalences to behold



“At forty”, David Thomson suggested in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, “the face that made Delon one of the most beautiful men in international cinema began to blur.” Maybe that was for the best, if we take into account what Delon once said of his own beauty, quoted in David Shipman’s Film Stars: The International Years: “I am not a star. I am an actor. I have been fighting for ten years to make people forget that I am just a pretty boy with a beautiful face. It’s a hard fight but I will win it.” Perhaps he has won it less by becoming a much better actor, than by losing that pretty face. In those early films, in Plein soleil, The Eclipse, Rocco and his Brothers and The Leopard, Delon could not project intelligence. Even his scheming ways in Rene Clement’s Plein soleil suggested emotional weakness rather than intellectual strength. As he murders friend and fellow American in Italy Philip Greenleaf, this is murder as a mixture of envy and revenge. It is envy for all that the rich Greenleaf possesses (he’s the son of an industrialist); revenge for being excluded from it for so long, and for Greenleaf’s casual abuse.

But in many ways Plein soleil is a palimpsest of a film, in the sense that there is a narrative and supra-narrative aspect in conflict with each other. Firstly, this a story, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel, of two Americans in Italy, played by two French actors speaking French. Secondly, Maurice Ronet plays the womanising charmer and yet it is Delon’s beauty that is clearly fore-grounded. In the remake forty years later, The Talented Mr Ripley, these anomalies are ironed out, with Jude Law and Matt Damon the leads, and with the better-looking Law playing Greenleaf. Yet these discrepancies in the original film work well for the purposes of Delon’s career. Delon gives to the film a complexity that could have been missing had the movie played it straight. The film was written by Paul Gegauff, whose script work has often been fascinated by the problem of self and other in Les Cousins, Les Biches and Une Partie du Plaisir, and who himself stars in the latter film with some of the vanity we notice Delon possesses here. Delon indeed offers an especially naked narcissism, naked in the sense that it possesses no underpinning well being, material or social, to give credence to it beyond the beautiful. When Delon looks in the mirror what he sees is not so much his own stunning image, but a reflection that includes Greenleaf. He wears Greenleaf’s clothes as he stares closely at the mirror, and is brought up short when Greenleaf interrupts him.

We could of course contrast this with a late role as Caesar in Asterix at the Olympics, where we first see Delon looking into the mirror and suggesting Caesar doesn’t age but matures, and lest we assume there isn’t reflexivity at work, Caesar also manages to fit in references to, amongst other Delon films, Rocco and his Brothers and the Sicilian Clan. Plein soleil was Delon’s breakthrough role – a pretty nobody becoming a star by playing a pretty nobody. In Asterix, Delon is very much a man of substance: if in Plein soleil he needs another identity with which to look in the mirror, with Delon as Caesar there is once again a dual identity. But this time it isn’t the insubstantiality of Delon’s character and by extension the actor, but instead the reverse: the substantiality of both character and Delon. When Delon’s Caesar says his hair hasn’t gone grey it has lightened, this is the vanity of power, a literal eminence grise. Thomson is right when he says Delon’s face began to blur at forty, but we couldn’t say his star has waned. Delon would seem to have a point when he claims that his prettiness would not get in the way: that it was a fight he would win. From aesthetically pleasing insubstantiality to imposing self-referencing presence, Delon appears to have won his battle.


Yet there is a further irony at work, and that is while Plein soleil might not be a masterpiece, it has become a solid classic; will the same be said of Asterix at the Olympics, a franchised outing that crams into the film anybody that can give it a hint of box office, including cameos from Zidane and Jamel Debbouze? Though Delon played insubstantial in a number of early films – including The Eclipse and The Leopard – the films themselves were substantial. By the time Delon carried the maturity of self-reflection, many of the films were cop thrillers with no higher ambition than low-key Trench Coat existentialism. Clearly this direction owed something to Jean-Pierre Melville, and most especially Delon’s first collaboration with the director, the brilliant Le Samourai – as if this were Delon’s own move towards substantiality. From the first shots in Le Samourai of Delon lying on the bed in his room, to the closing images of his death, Melville shows a man alone, an aspect of Delon we find from his very earliest work, but never before really capitalised upon by a director: Melville iconographises Delon and shows a man of absolute purpose and rigour. In Plein soleil, Delon is socially uneasy and his solitariness comes chiefly from the initial need to avoid humiliation from Greenleaf and, later, after Greenleaf’s been killed, from the desire to eschew company that could get him caught. But in Le Samourai this fragility of character becomes strength of personality. In Plein soleil Delon is a worm that turns; in Le Samourai his character is aware of the duplicity of others: what he needs to possess is a code that transcends the everyday. As Roy Armes says in French Cinema, in relation to Melville’s films, “the director has no interest in the realistic portrayal of life as it is and disregards both psychological depth and accuracy of location and costume.” Plein soleil obviously cared little for accuracy either – two Frenchmen playing Americans hardly lends itself to verisimilitude – but it was interested in psychology, in personal motive over abstract behaviour. But Le Samourai is a work of abstraction, an exercise in iconography to which the fedora, the Trench Coat and the compact room all contribute.

In Melville’s films characters have reasons rather than motives, as if everyone has to act pragmatically given the nature of their situation. A motive brings to bear a psychology beyond the situation, and Gegauff, who so often worked with Claude Chabrol, is the opposite of Melville: he is a writer who is intrigued by characters for whom motive sits deeply within them and rises to the surface, often inexplicably. Whether that is the killing at the end of Les Cousins, Ripley’s actions in Plein soleil, or Why’s murder of Frederique at the end of Les Biches, this is a Chabrolian fascination with character; Melville is a director more interested in situation. It is a mechanistic universe more than a behavioural one, and where we can say of Chabrol’s films that murders usually take place in environments that do not lend themselves to the murderous – the flat in Les Cousins, St Tropez in Les Biches, the Massif Central village in Le Boucher, the haut bourgeois Brittany house in La Ceremonie – Melville’s murders usually take place in the expected gangster environment. They are inevitable rather than contingent events, so that where motive indicates subjective human agency, in Melville reason often indicates objective inevitability.


It is into this latter world Delon ostensibly more readily fits. This is partly due to his limitations as an actor, and we use the word actor here to suggest agency over iconography, and that Delon is a better iconographic presence than an actorly one. For example in the opening shot of Melville’s film he does nothing: he is framed by the director and yet we feel we understand the character from these opening images of a man in his room with a bird in a cage. To ask questions about his motivation is irrelevant: it’s a Sisyphian myth of inevitable tribulation. What Melville requires are actors who can be in the situation, be void of personality and purpose beyond the immediate problem. Thus the very shallowness in Delon’s earlier work in Plein soleil, Rocco and his Brothers, The Eclipse and The Leopard, becomes in Le Samourai and numerous gangster and cop flicks thereafter not so much depth, but presence. When Delon says he was going to escape from the pretty boy image we might have assumed he meant becoming an actor or range and flexibility, but instead he became an actor of singularity and unfathomability. John Orr talks in Contemporary Cinema of Delon’s “stillness in motion”, while Gilles Deleuze believed Delon, in Cinema 1: The Movement Image, has “a static violence”.

Deleuze is here talking of a naturalist potential in Delon which would seem to counter much of what we’ve been saying about the actor thus far. For naturalist violence isn’t realist violence – it is more than the violence in the situation, and yet we’ve talked about how Delon in much of his work is an actor of the situation: that is the strength of his work with Melville. But as Deleuze talks of an impulse that can disarm psychology, that Losey’s characters (and Delon played the lead role in Mr Klein) are not “bogus hard men but bogus weaklings”: they are condemned in advance by the violence which dwells in them…” this is the flipside to the Melville figure. This indicates sides to Delon that occasionally cross-over, though the stillness Orr talks about and the static violence Deleuze proposes are not quite one and the same. The static violence of the weakling with a violent streak is closer to Plein soleil and Mr Klein, even perhaps to Delon’s boxer in Rocco and his Brothers and of course La piscine, where he once again, as in Plein soleil, takes out a man he perceives  is humiliating him, and again played by Maurice Ronet. Then there are the men of violence for whom the situation dictates over the behaviour – and this would include not only Le Samurai, but also other Melville films La Circle rouge and Un Flic, as well as Flic Story and numerous other gangster and cop films. In such movies Delon is a man of violence who is attuned to the situation: we notice how he reads the environment, listens out for tell-tale sounds. He is, if you like, mature to the event in these thrillers; rather than immature towards his feelings in the psychological films. When Orr talks of Delon’s “paranoia as stoic repose which fills in the iconic look and his neurasthenic sensitivity to sound”, this is the spatial maturity Delon shows in his films for Melville, as well as work in Flic Story and The Sicilian Clan. In Un Flic, for example, watch how Delon’s face observes every gesture in his nemesis Richard Crenna, right up until the moment he must take the latter’s life. The psychological dimension is much less important than, if you like, the cognitive one: the wary observation of man’s inevitable inhumanity to man in an environment of violence.

This is not, in relation to the psychological mentioned above, to reduce Antonioni’s marvellously complex The Eclipse to psychology, but nevertheless it fits with Delon’s emotional immaturity. Like Ripley he is a man who wants to become rich, but this time he makes his money through working on the stock exchange, and as we see him during a stock market crisis moving from phone to phone, we notice a man who is still a boy. There is a gleeful enthusiasm to the job that shows while he does it well, he doesn’t seem to understand its implications. Vitti, who understands the job not at all, nevertheless appears to know this world’s limitations as people win and lose fortunes. Later Delon and Vitti meet again, after Delon’s stolen car crashes into the river. When Vitti looks like she’s fretting over the driver’s death; Delon muses over dents to the vehicle. While Vitti gives the impression of a woman absorbing a loss that has nothing to do with her, Delon moves with the body language of someone for whom a dent is more important than a life. At one stage during their walk round a suburb of Rome, Vitti says she came to see Delon and that she is a fool; at the end of the sequence she walks off saying she has to go. Delon starts to follow in a long shot that incorporates Delon in middle-distance and Vitti farther away, both with their backs to the camera. Antonioni then cuts to Vitti walking away from the camera in medium close up and then she turns to face the camera and to look at Delon. Then Antonioni cuts to Vitti in a medium long shot with her back to the camera, looking at where Delon should be, except that he’s now disappeared. Everything in the camera work and in Delon’s body language would suggest here is a man who wouldn’t be there for her, and if Melville’s is a camera that pinpoints an attentiveness to the situation in Delon’s character, in The Eclipse Antonioni offers the opposite. Melville, a great director of situational problematics, constantly locates Delon as wise to the space. Antonioni, a masterful director of human problematics, shows Delon indifferent to it and offers a visual style sympathetic to Vitti’s neurosis and unsympathetic to Delon’s arrogant assumptions. At one moment Delon informs Vitti that he will shortly kiss her, and yet Antonioni frames his process of seduction so that we don’t see a good looking man moving in on an admiring woman, but a man imposing himself on her. There is clumsiness not so much in Delon’s body language, but in the way the director frames the actor. Delon in some shots seems to loom over Vitti, though there isn’t much of a height differential.


This is really to say that in much of Delon’s early work there is a callowness the directors zero in on and utilise, just as in many later films (and again it’s a broad generalisation with key exceptions), the filmmakers plays up Delon’s iconographic aspect, a maturity and gravitas that is wise to the situation. It as though Delon simultaneously gained control of his image at the same time as he gained control of the cinematic space he occupied. That ‘static violence’ Deleuze talks of is the presence not only of a naturalist streak in Delon’s characters, but also an insensitive streak, but an  insensitivity not only in the general social sense of the term, but towards also himself and the situation he finds himself in. This is why we contrast Deleuze’s comment with Orr’s – that Orr is talking of mastery; Deleuze about the opposite. When for example in The Eclipse Delon walks with Vitti, his character cannot see the ontological limitation of character that the director visualises. He may seem to be seducing a young woman, but we see a man clumsy despite himself – clumsy in the sense that he is not sensitive to her needs, and Antonioni frames this insensitivity with great subtlety and rigour. Thus Gilberto Perez proposes in The Material Ghost that when Vitti turns in the scene quoted above to face him and sees he is not there, we are as surprised as Vitti to see him no longer present because we would seem to have been following his gaze on her, and her expectation of that gaze. Delon’s character would be, as Perez suggests, not especially unlikeable, but he does seem to be insensitive to the world around him. Should he have not waited longer at that corner, shouldn’t he have known she would turn round and hope to see him there, just as we hope to see him there as well?

Thus what we are proposing is that where in his gangster mode, and especially in his films for Melville, Delon becomes hypersensitive to his milieu, in Plein soleil and The Eclipse he is in-sensitive to it. Yet how can this idea hold up if we think of Tom Ripley in contrast to Philip Greenleaf in Plein soleil? Isn’t Ripley much more sensitive to Philip’s girlfriends wants and desires than Greenleaf, doesn’t he share something of the girlfriend’s pain after Greenleaf throws her preface to an art book into the water when the three of them are out on Greenleaf’s yacht?  Maybe part of Ripley’s motive behind killing resides in the way Greenleaf treats his own girlfriend, but not long before Greenleaf throws his girlfriend’s work in the water, he’s allowed Ripley to suffer excruciating humiliation and sunburn: Greenleaf leaves him to bake in the yacht’s rowing boat. Ripley shows the girlfriend sympathy after Greenleaf’s thrown away her work not least because of the humiliation he’s recently suffered himself. Again, later in the film we may think of Ripley’s consideration when, after taking over Greenleaf’s identity, he ends up leaving his fortune to the girlfriend, only then try to charm his way into her good books and potentially her fortune. This is selfish observation for one’s own ends; hardly sensitivity towards another, and by the end of each film, of Plein soleil and The Eclipse, we might still say of the characters that they do not really know themselves.


There is often also in Ripley’s behaviour an ambivalence of motive that tells us something about the ambivalence of Delon’s persona. Certain actors can play goodness a priori: Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Gregory Peck immediately come to mind, but Delon is an actor for whom goodness must be a posterieri, and much can be gained in casting Delon in a role where goodness and badness are played off each other. In a minor film like Les Seins de Glace he plays a married lawyer in love with Mirielle Darc’s Peggy. Peggy has an aversion to men, however, and any time a sexual encounter looks likely to take place she tries to kill them. Delon is an ambivalent presence to behold, half desirous lover to be; half concerned friend and lawyer, Delon ends up blowing her brains out in a gesture that resembles tender loving care. As he hugs her and tells her that they will escape to Australia he pulls the trigger in a moment that doesn’t quite make him the baddie of the piece as he takes her out of her misery, but it is hardly the action of the morally good either. The latter is a role for a different kind of actor, and is in fact played here by Claude Brisseau as Peggy’s would-be lover.

Delon’s inability to play innate goodness may be why in so unequivocally a good role as Rocco in Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers, David Shipman, in The Great Movie Stars: The International Years, insists he was woefully miscast. Expected to portray neo-realist decency, Visconti plays up Delon’s angelic good looks but doesn’t allow a devilish use of them that we find in many of his other roles. Plein soleil might not be a better film than Rocco and his Brothers, but it is gives us a better use of Delon.

During the late sixties Delon was involved in a scandal that did nothing to harm this ambivalent persona. Delon’s bodyguard was found murdered on a rubbish dump and there were reports revealing a sex and drugs scandal that involved various politicians. Delon proved he had nothing to do with the murder, but as Shipman and others have proposed, a scandal that could have ended his career instead cemented it. Imagine if Redford or Peck had been involved in a similar incident – could their careers have survived? Delon even played it up; later talking of his own youthful, delinquent background in an interview with the BBC. When at the beginning of The Sicilian Clan, a film Delon made around the same time as the scandal, the details of regular school attendance till the age of eleven and a criminal record at the age of fourteen play into the persona of someone who wants to project an image that can lead the viewer to play guessing games with the character’s values. Though at one stage in The Sicilian Clan Delon’s character says people never really took him seriously – even with a gun in his hand he didn’t seem to have the face for killing – this sounds unlikely. Delon has a beautiful face but hardly an innocent looking one. Just as Delon could say of his own career that people weren’t taking him seriously due to his looks, in The Sicilian Clan is his character offering special pleading, that he can’t be taken seriously as a criminal because of that self-same face? Did the sex and drugs scandal change that, or was it not always present in Delon’s visage?


Perhaps it did change things, but we’re more inclined to say that Delon’s face is attractive but has never been unthreatening, and this is why the comments from Orr and Deleuze, though pointing up different aspects of Delon, dovetail on the point of threat. Whether it is in Delon’s heightened awareness of a situation, or Deleuze’s acceptance of violence from the hidden texture of one’s being, these are the two poles that give Delon his edginess. It is nonsense to suggest his character is too attractive to pass for menacing: it may even be argued that it is Delon’s type of attractiveness that makes him perfect for many of the roles he has played. His is not an open attractiveness but a closed beauty, and it is interesting to watch Delon and Deneuve acting together in Un Flic – they both possess a physical demeanour that doesn’t open up to the world, but have faces that close off the world as they hem themselves in. They’re both actors for whom the face can pass for a mask. There are many good looking actors who don’t have this quality – from Marcello Mastroianni to Sophia Loren, from Peck to Ingrid Bergman, and certainly in Mastroianni and Bergman’s case they are better actors. But this closed beauty works well for the twin aspect we perceive in Delon. At one pole the static violence can contain the opposite of control though superficially it might pass for its mastering, and it is this we can see not only in the benign environment films of Plein soleil and La piscine – films that pass almost for companion pieces – but also the apparently rather different and underestimated Shock Treatment.

Here Delon plays a doctor in a coastal French town who somehow manages to rejuvenate the aging with the shock treatment of the title. Apparently a benign presence in a benign environment, Delon’s motives are finally less to help the wealthy ageing cope in their advancing years with treatment that keeps them young, than with a fascination for sacrifice. At various stages we quite inexplicably have primitive drum music on the soundtrack, but its purpose is to lead us into Delon’s doctor claims at the end of the film: that just like the primitives we always sacrifice the weak. As Delon shows Annie Girardot how he keeps her young, we see that it is through using the blood cells of the immigrant workers who keep the health centre running and who are then killed. Director Alan Jessua, in an interview that accompanies the DVD, says he wanted to utilise Delon’s charm, saying that he would smile all the time and seduce everybody during the shoot. But he also of course wanted the static violence Delon can project, and much of the menace of the film comes from Delon’s smile and the way he moves through space. Now Delon is a slightly stiff actor, and he is always at his most visually fluid when a director moves the camera in relation to the actor moving through space. Jessua does this extremely smoothly, and we notice it when Girardot is first introduced to the doctor. The camera tracks and zooms to play up Delon’s sense of dynamism. It isn’t only the tan here, a skin tone that is absent from numerous other Delon films around this time where he looks pale and drawn, it is also that Jessua wants to show a mobility that doesn’t seem a natural part of Delon’s body language. If Antonioni played up any hint of clumsiness; Jessua emphasises any hint of smoothness. We may also notice that though Delon smiles a lot (and it’s also a comment made in The Sicilian Clan by a teacher in Delon’s file) it is rarely the broadest of smiles: it is a slightly thin-lipped, small smile that never quite opens up the face. Delon can smile like a man looking to seduce but refusing to reveal, and again Jessua captures this well. When Delon first introduces himself to Girardot he offers her a drink. As she turns it down the smile quickly disappears as if he himself has been rejected. This type of performance, modulated by the director, can capture astutely the static violence: it is as though we are waiting for a murderousness to be revealed and the motive behind that murderousness, as in Plein soleil and La Piscine. Just as the environment suggests the benign, so we wait for the character to reveal the malignant. The film in Britain might have been sold under the title of Doctor in the Nude for Delon’s flash of flesh, but Jessua’s more interested in revealing the flash of violence that occasionally surfaces in Delon in environments where one wouldn’t expect it.


What we’ve been examining here in relation to Delon’s persona have been two things really. One has been the way his iconic status has steadily accumulated. On the Alain Delon box set released by Optimum, The Times quote on the back says “One of the few actors who has made it to icon status during his own lifetime.” That move towards iconic status hasn’t however simply been by making a series of impressive films, but rather if anything by making quite a number of bad ones. As we’ve suggested, many of his best films were made earlier in his career, and directors like Clement, Visconti and Antonioni were very much interested in casting Delon for his looks. When Delon offers his back catalogue in front of the mirror at the beginning of Asterix…much of the gravitas lies in longevity over ability: it is a combination of the famously narcissistic young man, looking not just at his now aging body, with the self-reflexive referencing of the body of work. When Pauline Kael once mused over whether it was bit too soon for Robert Redford to be wallowing in his own persona in the mid-seventies while the actor himself was not even forty, Delon, in his seventies, has been around so long that he has earned the right to the self-conscious, even if the work hasn’t always been of equal interest to the persona. If it is often said in stardom the persona superimposes itself on characters the star plays, then maybe the definition of the iconic in film is the actor whose total is more than the sum of the parts. Someone like Michel Piccoli has probably film for film made more interesting works than Delon – Le Mepris, Belle de Jour, Themroc, Le Grand Bouffe, La Belle Noiseuse, I’m Going Home – but the sum total is rather less than our suave star.


Yet perhaps this can lead us into our second point, and that is the degree to which an actor explores aspects of a self. We’ve indicated that central to Delon’s work has been two approaches to the violent: the immanently violent and the situationally violent. Hence a fairly minor but intriguing film like Shock Treatment has an added dimension of intrigue through Delon playing the role of a man whose violent streak creates a situation rather than finds an outlet in an already aggressive milieu. Obviously another actor could have played the role. How many films have mad scientists in them after all? Yet Delon’s quality in the film is that it doesn’t feel like a mad scientist movie, but somehow more consistent with the malignant coming out of the benign that occasionally presents itself in some of his other films. We’ve commented on Jessua’s remarks about watching Delon closely on the set, watching the way he would charm everybody during the filming. The strength of the film resides less in Delon playing a mad scientist than Jessua observing astutely aspects of Delon’s persona that could feed into the role. Delon’s still youthful looks, his still slim body and his shiny dark hair gives to the film an actively performative dimension: a dimension that says here is a man of physical qualities, but how far are we willing to predicate the physical over the ethical? It isn’t too far removed from the question of ethics asked in Plein soleil when we see Delon wearing Greenleaf’s expensive, quality clothes and may muse over how much better a model for these expensive items he is than Ronet’s Greenleaf. As we sit watching him pretending to be Greenleaf in a perfectly cut suit, are we concerning ourselves with the moral problem of a death, or the aesthetic pleasure of properly worn clothing?

A good actor can submerge himself in a role, but does a star not create from the role an extra-diegetic frisson? Is that partly what we mean when we say the star is more than the sum of his parts – parts also in the sense of the roles he plays? Is it like a variation on Deleuze’s notion of static violence – that there is a surplus element to any given role that allows for a star to be miscast because of our expectation based on the body of work? Yet Delon has covered a broad range of roles it would seem. He played homosexual in Swann in Love, and though he’s best known for his cops and his robbers, he plays the scientist in Shock Treatment, a trader in The Eclipse and a teacher in a coastal town in The Professor. Even here however there is the cruelty of Charlus in Swann in Love, insensitivity in The Eclipse, brutal indifference to others in Shock Treatment, and when Delon falls in love with a younger woman in The Professor gangsters come calling.  But we’re not asking of Delon much range; we’ve been trying to find out what makes Delon the icon The Times perceives him to be, and how roles show less his range than his pre-occupations.  When the back of the box-set mentions of Delon’s “unique blend of menace and charisma”, what is interesting is what that uniqueness happens to be, not any flexibility we might perceive. What we’ve indicated is that the menace and charisma has chiefly two poles – the immanent violence at odds with the situation, and the rational violence consistent with it – and that Delon’s stardom gains much of its force from working with them. That Delon allowed this charismatic menace too often to be channelled into thrillers in the seventies and eighties that had little of the international appeal of his sixties work could be fairly argued: that limitation of range was met with limitation of distribution.

But that hasn’t been our purpose. It has instead been to try find out what makes Delon an interesting screen presence, an actor whose ambiguous screen persona draws out of the viewer a degree of ambivalence in the viewing experience. If Shipman’s correct about Delon’s miscasting as Rocco is it not partly because central to Delon’s screen presence is our own indecisive sense of how we should take him? Delon perhaps more than any other actor offers a menacing beauty, a homme fatale figure in certain instances, a functional, almost a-psychological presence in others. He may have wanted to prove himself in thespian terms, but any greatness he possessed as an actor could not easily be extricated from the physical attractiveness that accompanied it.


©Tony McKibbin