The Subject as Object
One way of understanding Joseph Losey's Mr Klein is to see how far away it happens to be from a Jean-Pierre Melville film that it could ostensibly be seen to resemble. The film of course stars Alain Delon, Melville's late-career actor fetish in Le Samourai, The Red Circle and Un Flic, and Melville, who was in the Resistance during the war, also made around the same time as the key documentary about collaboration (The Sorrow and the Pity, a film about those in France who tried to fight the Nazis underground) Army of Shadows. Both were released in 1969. The French involvement in WWII wasn't the country's finest hour, and during most of the glorious thirty years of the post-war period of prosperity, the French preferred to ignore it. "...It was only in the late 1960s that the questions which have become obsessively familiar over the last thirty years began to be aired: the political and personal divisions of the French; the broad consensus of support for Vichy and particularly Petain..."(French Cultural Studies: An Introduction) But while Melville focused on the occasional acts of heroism that illustrated the collaboration of the many implicitly, Marcel Ophuls' film made clear the depth and breadth of that collaboration, and the two films led to others looking at the period, most especially Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien and Losey's Mr Klein. Of the four films, two were made by French men, two by foreigners: Ophul's and Losey's. But the American-born, Communist Losey, who left the US during the McCarthyite witch-hunts, settled in the UK, and who moved to France for tax reasons in the seventies, was never a filmmaker far away from shame. Frequently he presents characters for whom shame manifests itself as weakness. It might be in Eva where the central character Tyvian has taken his novelist dead brother's work as his own, and exacerbates that sense of shame by getting consistently humiliated by the title character with whom he falls in love. It could be the academic Stephen in Accident, who shamefully accepts that a woman he ambivalently falls for will make love with a fellow academic in his house as he willingly offers the abode for their sexual purposes. It could be the young boy in The Go-Between who grows up into an impotent old man, unable to deal with his involvement many years earlier as the titular go-between semi-unknowingly facilitating a love story between two people of different social classes.
If shame is vital to Losey's work, honour is at the core of Melville's. These are opposing values: shame reveals itself in the face of a failure to be honourable, and shame struggles to manifest itself in a world where people act honourably. But how does this work in Losey's Mr Klein, a film starring an actor who could be of such use to two very different directors? Delon has always had the capacity to play stoically strong and weakly fragile, unlike other Melville actors like Lino Ventura or even Gian Maria Volonte and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Ventura seems rock solid with a face like a slab of granite; Volonte can play hero or villain according to the demands of the situation but rarely cowardly, while Belmondo can easily play the fool (Breathless and Pierrot le fou) but is the sort of guy to have on your side in a difficult moment. Delon always seemed much more solitary than these figures, despite the solitariness of Ventura in for example Francesco Rosi's Illustrious Corpses, and Volonte for the same director in Christ Stopped at Eboli. Yet Delon can convey solitude in company, as if in a room full of people he remains alone, navigating his isolation like a subject in a room full of objects. It is this aspect Losey makes vital to Mr Klein. Here we have an art dealer, Robert Klein, whose beautiful Rue de Bac apartment in the centre of Paris contains numerous works on the walls, and objets d'art on the sideboards, desks and fireplaces. It is the sort of abode on the point of clutter and when occupied by numerous others (as in the party scene and later when the authorities start taking away his work) feels overcrowded. Yet even when he is alone with his lover, Janine (Juliet Berto), it can appear as if two is a crowd. She occupies the space as inconspicuously as she can manage while always remaining an aesthetic object for appreciation. When we first see her lying in bed languorously (Klein is downstairs doing a deal) the camera zooms out from a painting on the wall to Janine waking up. The linkage is obvious; the painting is a semi-abstract image of a woman under bed covers and we see Janine likewise. In Melville's Le Samourai, Delon lives in an empty room with a bird in a cage, his girlfriend an alibi living elsewhere useful when he needs someone to justify where he has been but less essential to his emotional life. Janine isn't essential; she is an accoutrement, another thing to have around the apartment. Both women aren't irrelevant but of specific relevance: to evade the law and to imbue the apartment respectively.
Yet at least the bird in the cage in Le Samourai proves a companion of sorts, and also proves useful when the bird's cheeping reveals people have been in his apartment, and thus functional. The bird we find in Mr Klein is symbolic and aesthetic. We first see the tapestry of a vulture over the film's opening credits, and later see it analysed by an art expert at an antiques market which Mr Klein attends. The expert notes that the blue in the painting suggests indifference; the white indicates cruelty, black, arrogance, purple greed. Yet the tapestry also suggests remorse, "its heart is pierced by an arrow yet it continues to fly." That it functions symbolically is all the more apparent in that Klein doesn't buy it, and doesn't recommend that his friend buy it either: he thinks it is bad luck. But it nevertheless sums his character up pretty well when he is struck down by 'Jewishness" and unable to remain the free man he proclaims to be. He searches out the 'real' Robert Klein determined to free himself of the fear that people are taking him as a Jew. The tight logician Melville deals with functions; Losey offers abstractions. The bird in the cage is never going to be without a purpose in Le Samourai; the bird in Mr Klein hovers over the film, no more than connotatively pertinent. The bird in Melville's suggests Delon's astuteness; in Mr Klein his obliviousness.
We don't want to labour the similarities and differences between Melville and Losey, and especially between Le Samourai and Mr Klein, but when David Caute in Losey: A Revenge on Life speaks of symbolism with a vengeance concerning the tapestry, is it because he is asking for a Melville film rather than a Losey work? While he doesn't mention Melville he does admire the film when it attends to the specific and leaves aside the symbolic, seeing Mr Klein at its best as a calculated account of despair rather than what he believes Losey arrives at: "Mr Klein is disturbingly exploitationist, capitalizing on what it purports to condemn: a luxurious bachelor establishment strewn with sex objects, a sumptuous chateau, a transvestite cabaret, coquets and coquettes..." The symptomatic, symbolic account of Klein's life suggests Losey is indulging in the very things he is condemning, and symbolism won't, according to Caute, save him. Yet Losey has always been a director drawn to the inadequacy of humans and what better a subject in which to reveal these inadequacies than a film which locates itself during the French occupation? While Melville would have been more likely to have told the story from the other Mr Klein, who seems to be a heroic figure in the resistance even if we never see him, David Thomson sums up Losey's world view quite well when quoting a character from the 1960 Losey film, The Damned: "I like him because he doesn't like the world. It's a good beginning." (A Biographical Dictionary of Film) But we also have the sense that while Losey's characters don't like the world, they do like things. Mr Klein is just the further reaches of a character who has a liking for things that stretches back to Eva, The Servant, and The Go-Between and that became vital to a mise-en-scene which often refused the clear differentiations between subjects and objects. So often in his work Losey doesn't establish the shot or frame a shot with the emphasis on a person but from the position of an object, whether it is the painting on the wall before showing us Janine, the Chinese vases on the edge of the shot near the beginning of The Go-Between, the grapefruit-like lamp in Eva, or the chair in The Servant that Sarah Miles sits in that we see from behind before her bare feet appear from the side of it.
Rather like Luchino Visconti, Losey is a lush Marxist, a director who creates an expressive mise-en-scene that isn't quite cooly coded as we find in traditional fifties melodrama, where in Douglas Sirk's work the colours and the objects are freighted with impressive if categorical meaning, bright yellow cars and jumpers, wine red upholstery and red dresses, roses and carpets on the stairs. Sirk's connotative imagery in a film like Written on the Wind is categorical and vivid yet never chaotic. The fifties technicolor separates colours out and gives everything their distinctiveness. Losey's is much subtler but also much more dense, as though he wants less to indicate the mise-en-scene's symbolic import than the ferociously tentative relationship between subjects and objects. This is perhaps where the lush Marxism comes in, showing Losey's ambiguous relationship with a theory that seeks equality, and an interest in things that a self cannot easily do without. Whatever the wealth of Losey's characters they usually live amongst luxurious objects. Tony may have only just moved into the house in Chelsea in The Servant but it is quickly filled up with numerous items of furniture, art and bric a brac. In the Go-Between, Marion and her family are according to Losey nouveau riche middle class, people who will have bought and educated their way into comfort but who are not natural inhabitants of it. The Viscount Trimingham who Marion will marry is obviously old money but "the boy [Leo] is from a ruined middle class, the others from a nouveau riche middle class)." (Conversations with Losey) But whatever the nature of someone's wealth, however long they have occupied the house they are in, Losey gives us the impression that objects define and refine a person's sensibility and identity even if at the same time it threatens it. Losey perhaps understood this much more clearly that that other lush Marxist (and also aristocrat) Visconti for the most pragmatic of reasons. As Caute observes, commenting on the general rivalry between the two filmmakers: "when he filmed The Leopard or The Damned the great houses and flunkeys were his own habitat; Losey had to work his way into the decor. Visconti could hurl his money or his mother's jewels into a production, whereas Losey had to beg and scavenge." (Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life)
We might wonder in numerous Losey films where all the objects come from in a narrative sense? In Mr Klein, we have some sort of answer at the beginning of the film when Klein buys the painting from a desperate Jewish man. Set in 1942, how many other works has he bought in recent years from persecuted Jews in the two years the Nazis have occupied France? We cannot say but we do know that the way in which he buys the painting near the beginning of the film suggests he has no qualms buying work on the cheap from the straitened. Watching Janine in Klein's luxurious bathroom we hear the conversation taking place downstairs. "you must be joking, at that price I'd rather keep it" the Jewish man says. "As you wish," Klein replies. "It is easy for you, when a man is forced to sell," the seller says. "But I'm not forced to buy," Klein replies. Klein seems to offer the last remark as an instance of his freedom but it may well him haunt him as a moral refrain. He is indeed not forced to buy even if the poor man is forced to sell, yet at the very end of the film, just as Klein is on a train with only one destination a concentration camp so this exchange is repeated on the soundtrack. By this stage so caught up is he in the other Mr Klein's existence he doesn't even stop when it looks like he might meet his death as a consequence of it. As he stands on the train looking out of the window, knowing he cannot now escape, he appears as a man condemned but the voice-over suggests that condemnation rests partly on an unusual combination of indifference (towards the Jewish man at the beginning), and his obsession with another Jew, the other Mr Klein, throughout the rest of the film. Delon's Mr Klein has moved from indifference towards the other who is just a sales kill, to an obsession with the other who threatens his very identity, who leaves him wondering who exactly he is as he determines to find out who this other man is. Mr Klein might not see himself as a collector but he has gathered a vast horde of items that leaves barely an inch of his flat without something on the walls or on the tables. We sense a man who lives through objects, someone who treats others as competing for resources, useful for his purposes or reflective of his ego. And yet there he at the end consumed by another subject.
The closest he may have to a friend is his lawyer, Pierre (Michel Lonsdale), but he's already slept with his wife and later in the film Pierre no doubt exploits him when Klein is in a desperate situation and Pierre sells off his goods. But the other Mr Klein creates in Delon a crisis of self, a proper investigation into who he is that is twofold. Firstly, when a Jewish newspaper arrives at his door indicating he is perceived as a Jew and realises, when Robert meets up with his father in Strasbourg, that though his bumptious papa claims the family Kleins have been Catholic going back to Louis XIV, nevertheless there is a Dutch line that might be sullied. Secondly, the other Mr Klein lives and acts very differently from our protagonist. He appears to have occupied a rundown bare apartment and is involved in the Resistance. He seems to be concerned with the lives of others rather than preoccupied with shoring up his sense of self.
As in other Losey films, the objects Mr Klein possesses somehow really do possess him: they are the accoutrements of desire which show the hollow self that relies on them. This is a form of reification, Losey style, and hence why we speak of lush Marxism. Georg Lukacs speaking of reification says, "the essence of commodity-structure has often been pointed out. Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a 'phantom objectivity', an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people." ('Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat') This indicates that subjects and objects become interchangeable, or rather that objects from a certain point of view have more status than subjects. People are for example a unit of labour first; a person second. But in the sort of Marxism that fascinates Losey, who has little interest in the working class and often focuses on the wealthy, we see how the objects have nothing to do with units of labour but instead amassed status. The problem starts when someone who acknowledges how important objects are in one's life cannot quite see subjects differently. If they can't be possessed, then the individual keen to possess them is likely to become instead obsessed.
We find this to be true in Tyvian's determination to do anything for Eva in the film of that name, Tony's realisation that he cannot control his titular employee in The Servant, Stephen's wish to find a means by which to 'win' Anna in Accident, and Mr Klein's fixation on his double. Perhaps if they had a different relationship with objects, they could thus have a different one with subjects, but ownership matters to Losey's characters and so what happens when one cannot possess a subject the way one can possess an object? Even in The Go-Between, the titular character may have very little as he comes from an impoverished middle-class and goes off to live with a wealthy family after his father's death, but the woman he will come to adore, the person whose letters he passes onto her lower-class lover, introduces Leo to subject-object relations. After they come back from a trip to town everyone gathers around him as he shows them what Marion has bought: a Lincoln green suit that he will wear in almost every scene thereafter. The family stands around asking questions about the suit, the tie, the shoes. The tie is from Cello and Cello; the shoes from Sterling and Porter. "Do you feel different?" he is asked. "I feel quite another person" Leo says. His infatuation with Marion isn't easily extricated from the fact that she has given him a sartorial identity.
Losey's interest in Marxism doesn't rest on improving the lot of the lower orders but suggesting how class functions as a means of holding together fragile selves. They are alienated figures in their comfort just as the working classes would be alienated from their labour. If the rich cannot be themselves because of how they problematically identify with what they own; the poor cannot be themselves because so much of their time is spent devoted to making the very things the wealthy enjoy. These are two sides of the Marxist coin even if Losey chooses heads rather than tails. Eva may be predicated on a novel written by the miner brother who died, with Tyvian claiming it as his own and living the good life, but it wouldn't be a Losey film if it had been set mainly in the Welsh mining village rather than wintry Venice. Equally, Mr Klein would probably have been much less of a Losey film if the emphasis had been on the other Mr Klein, his empty apartment and his heroic Resistance activities. Losey's lush Marxism needs to show luxury to critique it, to illustrate how precarious isn't the wealth of the characters but the precarity of their identities. Hence their weakness and their shame.
Returning more specifically to Mr Klein, Losey talked interestingly of working with Delon, saying that there were several days when the actor just wouldn't cooperate at all. Asking the actor what was wrong, Delon replied "Well, there are days when I feel that I am shit and that the world is shit and people are shit and film-making is shit, and I don't like this location I don't like anything about it." Losey couldn't see any reason for Delon's reaction while accepting that "of course there must have been some basic reasons...he comes from a petit bourgeois background and now he is an immensely cultivated and rich man. That's another contradiction." (Conversations with Losey) This is nothing if not a Loseyesque response to character. In such an anecdote what we notice is that Delon recognises a condition of self-disgust no matter the material accoutrements of his life. It seems unlikely this was Delon getting into character as we might assume with a De Niro or a Day-Lewis, but if it works well for the film it rests on a wealthy man who becomes impoverished first and foremost by recognising a value in himself that is contrary to that accumulation of self. Clearly, Mr Klein isn't simply a self-made man evident when we see him at his father's house looking at an encased collection of coins and medals under the rubric of Klein. Delon looks at the case and we see partially his reflection in it, one of Losey's many reflection shots that suggest identity is always a duplicative affair. Delon's Mr Klein is part of the honourable family tradition and yet existentially on the point of belonging to another tradition altogether. He has two weeks to produce a certificate that proves there is no Jewish blood in his recent ancestry but he has already become alienated from the family he appeared so completely to belong to - as if even the doubt itself can generate a crisis in a man whose work recently has been based on devaluing art but also in the process devaluing the human exchange that involves buying and selling.
The scene with the Jewish man who is forced to sell him a painting on the cheap comes immediately after an opening one where a naked Jewish woman gets evaluated by a French doctor. "Narrow forehead, low hairline...hair is thick, oily and shiny...slightly drooping upper eyelids...swarthy complexion." All the while the doctor handles her like cattle at a market; at the end of the examination we find out that she also has to pay for the privilege of her humiliation as she must prove she isn't Jewish. The doctor has left it a moot case: she could be Jewish, Armenian or Arabic. What she has been given is less than what has been taken: the evaluation is weak next to the stripped dignity that finds its necessary correlative in her naked body during the tests. In the following scene, it may be Klein who is underdressed and the Jewish man properly attired when Klein buys the painting off him, but the power dynamic is no less unequivocal than in the previous scene, not least because Klein's dressing gown looks like it is made of silk, and that the Jewish man might be besuited but this is a comfortably off figure no longer so comfortable. When Klein throws a bag of coins at him for the painting, he could just as easily have spat in the man's face. The Jewish man receives the money as he would receive more than a verbal insult but he also offers an irony that we and Klein can't help but miss until later in the film. Trying to explain where the painting came from he says it has always been in the house, "well, perhaps my grandfather, when he came from Holland." Klein replies that "it's a long time ago. It doesn't matter." But of course halfway through the film Robert too will be wondering about relatives from Holland and realising that, from the point of view of Nazi ideology, it wouldn't have been so long ago at all. Klein is buying a painting and asserting himself, but he is also about to embark on a journey of genealogical self-discovery that means this exchange will haunt him at the end of the film as he becomes the Jew led to the camps. Mr Klein might be Losey's most categorical exploration of the double but the problematic that underpins it the precarious feeling that one's identity is fragile is evident in much of his work.
Written by Franco (Salvatore Giuliano, Battle of Algiers, Burn!, State of Siege), Solinas, an Italian scriptwriter very good on the logistics of revolution and social change, nevertheless for Losey here provides something closer to a character study. If Solinas has usually suggested that society must crack, that strong individuals must make the world anew, Mr Klein indicates like many a Losey film that selves held together by material accoutrements have financial security but don't have the wherewithal to shield themselves from the forces of their own self-destruction.
Klein early on possesses the assertiveness of a man who has it made, but increasingly we recognise that having it made isn't the same as making something of oneself. In the first instance, an identity has been shaped by the good fortune of coming from a comfortable family, but Klein must acknowledge that such an accident of fate can hardly pass for a firm sense of self, especially when a family relative a couple of generations back can scupper one's genealogical assumptions and lead to the train tracks of the camps. But it can also indicate that perhaps morality is character rather than blood, with Delon seeing that his double seems willing to sacrifice his life working for the Resistance while Delon literally doesn't know who he is. When we see him moving around his empty apartment after everything has been flogged off to facilitate his escape from France since he can't prove he isn't a Jew, so he laughs at a vulgar cartoon from L'appel - the collaborationist newspaper during the years of the Nazi occupation. He still possesses the sense of humour of an entitled man even as he increasingly becomes a wanted one. Yet Losey isn't a director who deals in moral development or self-realisation. His characters arrive at abject states without being able to release themselves from them, whether it is Tyvian in Eva who will still debase himself no matter how badly Eva treats him, the boy destroyed as a grown-man in The Go-Between who might still allow himself to be an errand boy for the woman who has helped ruin his existence, or Tony who lets Barrett back into his life and watches his own disintegrate when Barrett become once again his manservant but on terms much more to Barrett's liking. While earlier in the film Tony can boss Barrett around whenever he wishes, later he can only make humble requests that Barrett may or may not accept. He has invited him to return but Tony is a defeated creature, broken partly by an affair with Barrett's 'sister' but as though he was always a weak man who couldn't realise his class privilege and would eventually be defeated by his innate insecurity.
If Mr Klein is much more a Losey film than a Melville work despite the casting of Delon and the subject of France during the Resistance years, it is centrally because Losey finds the source of greatest insecurity rather than the greatest integrity. If in Army of Shadows Lino Ventura's character has a moment of weakness as he briefly runs for his life from the Nazis, Delon here is a figure made strong by the family heritage he thinks he possesses and the collection he has accumulated; however, there isn't very much else besides. When he laughs at the cartoon in the newspaper it suggests a man who has never had much interest in siding with justice, and what are we to make of the scene in the nightclub where an anti-semitic sketch is performed? At one stage Klein starts to laugh and clap but Janine stops him in mid-reaction, showing on her face the concern and despair for what is happening in France that Klein can't seem to understand. It isn't a moment of weakness as we see in Ventura, it is a revelation of character that indicates Klein is an easily susceptible figure who doesn't have enough of a self to see when that self is being compromised, when its values are inconsistent with his own. If in Army of Shadows Ventura feels that erosion in the most desperate of situations when the Nazis expect him to run, then Klein needs sign after sign to have any sense that he is no longer quite the man he once was because there isn't much of a man to start with. When Klein looks at the cartoon and says Pierre is right, "they're getting the public ready for something", Janine's face makes it clear she is well aware of what that something might be, while for Klein what matters is self-preservation even as we notice the weakness of his being on at least two fronts. First, the lack of a value system; second, the lack of a sense of self. While it would be hard to claim Losey is a moral director (not only in the manner of a Steven Spielberg or a Stanley Kramer but even in the manner of Pontecorvo, Costa-Gavras or Rosi) he is a very fine filmmaker at showing up the problem of amorality. If characters rarely learn from their experiences, or prove capable of changing themselves, then we can nevertheless see that hardly passes for success. It is as if by lacking a value system they also can't find their identity. If Tyvian could learn from the importance of his brother's book rather than admitting he claimed it as his own in a moment of abject adoration for Eva, if Leo could have resisted Marion's charm and refused to continue passing the letters between Marion and Ted, if Stephen recognised more clearly his own motives in the context of Anna, then the value system might have saved them from the self shattering that constantly threatens or frequently takes place. If Melville allows his characters a moment of weakness, Losey's films are usually an accumulation of them.
How many moments can we find in Mr Klein, how often does Delon's character prove himself less than worthy, and what does this do to the film? There isn't only the early scene with the painting, nor the scene in the club and the cartoon he laughs at. There is the moment when he lies to his ex-lover (and Pierre's wife), Francine, saying that Janine arrived in the house before her at a party; not that she is living there with Klein. In another scene Klein rails against the injustices done to him as he is perceived as being a Jew: "they're taking my papers, my car, my paintings....no more bars, restaurants, movie theatres, nothing." It is a personal affront rather than a social injustice and so we don't expect him to find a social conscience that can strengthen his identity, but watch him instead disintegrate in front of us. As a consequence perhaps the film disintegrates a little too, with Mr Klein instead of resolving its plot arriving at paradox. It makes sense that critics have invoked Borges and Kafka. Anthony Lane notes that Klein "is hardly the first person, it must be said, to fall victim to a predatory glitch. 'Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.' So runs the first line of "The Trial," lit by Kafka's terrible clairvoyance." (New Yorker) J. Hoberman reckons: "it's a historical reconstruction with a modernist tone, evoking both Kafka and Borges." (New York Review of Books) The paradox in Mr Klein rests on Klein's need to escape Paris and his wish to stay; that the other Mr Klein seems both desperately impoverished and knows people with fortunes; that he is everywhere and yet never to be seen; that Delon's Klein is determined to save his skin and yet will allow his curiosity to lead him to the camps. Some might see inconsistency: that the film is neither one thing nor another. Pauline Kael believed. "Losey has only two modes of expression the oblique and the obvious and you never can be sure which is which." (When the Lights Go Down) But Mr Klein asks us to entertain the fact it can be both simultaneously because what matters isn't where the story arrives but the journey Mr Klein makes. From being a wealthy Aryan art dealer to a poor Jew destined for the gas chambers, Losey shows us a trajectory that combines external persecution with internal compulsion. Klein is a man who consciously determines to rid himself of any assumption of Jewishness and nevertheless seems internally impelled to find himself on the same train as numerous Jewish victims.
Peter Mayer mobilises Lacan to understand Delon's character, saying "although in the film Robert does not meet the 'other' Mr Klein, the spectator realises his namesake is really his opposite: the 'other' Klein is what Robert lacks." In the Lacanian formulation, this lack manifests itself early on of course in a mirror stage which alienates the child from him or herself as they see that they aren't just a body in themselves but also an object in the world. Most can cope with this gap between the subject they feel they are and the object they are perceived to be, but in Losey's work such a gap often seems pronounced and hence his appreciation of mirrors that constantly generate a self-doubling. Mayer notices that while Delon's Klein is the dutiful French citizen who keeps his distance even from those he is ostensibly close to like Janine, possibly Pierre and his wife, the other Mr Klein is involved in acts of sedition, seems close to others and capable of sensitivity. He has it appears the qualities Delon lacks, a mirror image so much more agreeable from a certain point of view than the one Delon lives within and that is increasingly undermined.
What the film does well is erode one self in the (absent) face of the other, brilliantly expressed in one of the many scenes in the film that surely can be viewed as ambiguous rather than obvious or oblique. In the scene where Mr Klein looks like he will leave Paris, the camera follows him along the platform walking with Pierre, and while his lawyer explains to him various financial details we see in the background a woman on the train talking to a man with his back to us through the window. As a group of German officers pass by them we can see in the background the man and the woman. There is no reason why we would pay any notice to them and even less so when the Nazis passing Klein and Pierre are more inclined to grab our attention. But when Klein gets on the train and sits in the same compartment as the woman, he looks out of the window and sees the man directly. The man remains seen from behind by the viewer but Klein can see clearly the man's face even if there is no expression on his own visage acknowledging it. Yet as the train leaves Paris he starts quizzing the woman opposite him about the other Mr Klein. It seems he has recognised the other man and when he talks to the woman she gives him additional information before saying that she doesn't know Robert; Delon insists he just saw him at the station. She slaps Delon but Klein now has more info, gets off at the next stop and returns to Paris. The scene seems to us neither obvious nor oblique but inferentially subtle. There is no suggestion that we should pay attention to this couple while watching Klein and Pierre on the station platform and no hint that Klein recognises the face when he gets on the train. It is a moment of retrospective inference. Usually, films offer present inference. One sees an incident and speculates on its outcome. A binman looks like he is carrying a suspiciously heavy bin and we discover that he isn't a binman at all but someone depositing a dead body into the cart. Nobody was better than Hitchcock at such inferences but many a whodunnit works off a similarly speculative approach. There is some untoward event and the viewer muses over the possible reasons for its untowardness. But the retrospective inference instead assumes nothing untoward before suggesting that something important has happened that we have missed, evident when Klein starts speaking to the woman on the train and we might wonder, if watching it in the cinema, whether we should have paid more attention. Rewatching the film one notes that while it is important that Klein sees his doppelganger there is no moment where we could have seen what he has seen.
If Hitchcock was the master of that wonderful space between the obvious and the oblique that allowed the spectator to make inferences that kept us in an identificatory relationship with his characters, Losey is a director who doesn't wish for such immediacy. He always keeps us a little in the dark and also generates dissuasive characterisation out of that obliqueness. When Klein starts harassing the woman on the train it seems a whole lot more like a bullying pick-up than if we know that he has seen the man he was searching for. By denying us this information, as Klein starts asking the woman who she is, whether her name is Francoise, Cathy or Isabelle, before discovering it is Nathalie, so Losey presents an obnoxious situation rather than a curious one. It may very ostensibly have similarities with the first encounter between Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint in another great film of mistaken identities, North by Northwest, with Grant flattered that a younger woman seems to be flirting with him on a train, but Hitchcock plays up the light humour in the situation rather than any menace in the meeting. Grant (and the viewer) doesn't know at this stage that Marie Saint is seducing him for a reason but Hitchcock needn't present this initial confusion as a form of distress. Losey does exactly that as we are confused by Delon's questioning and see a man harassing a stranger on the train. If Hitchcock's film is finally a film about the tension that can be generated out of one man getting taken for another, Losey shows us the anxiety involved in such a situation. Thornhill knows exactly who he is: the purpose is to clear his name. Klein's identity is much more fragile so that any attempt to confirm the purity of Aryan bloodline is mixed up with a creeping realisation that the man he wishes to distance himself from is, from another point of view, someone who he desperately wants to know, even, taking into account Peter Mayer's remarks, be.
Mayer thus presents Mr Klein as a Lacanian problem, a film exemplifying that chasm between the born self and the mirrored self, the person who exists for themselves and exists in society. Most of the time there needn't be much angst involved in such a gap, yet for Losey it has always fascinated him, and why mirrors in his work needn't only be a stylistic device to open up the space, but a psychoanalytic condition of the characters. We see it when Klein looks in the mirror in the restaurant halfway through the film, in Eva just after Tyvian admits the novel he claimed to have written was his brother's, and when Sarah Miles' character in deep focus is seen combing her hair in the mirror in The Servant. Mirrors are everywhere in Losey's work, as if to point up the precarious relationship between a person walking around in their body and the self that is perceived by others, including oneself in the looking glass. "People...have wanted to dismiss my work, Losey says, on the grounds that it was baroque." (Conversations with Losey) But Losey could justifiably claim this is where the aesthetic meets the psychoanalytic, where the mise en scene meets the mind. Few filmmakers more than Losey have managed to find the visual correlative for such a reflective notion, that one very understandably doesn't feel at home in one's body. In Mr Klein that Lacanian distress becomes allied to the Holocaust, to the idea that somebody minding their own business could easily become the opposite of who they thought they were because the societal insists that your body isn't your own but a plaything of a particular ideology. It can even happen to the most ostensibly Aryan Frenchmen who not only minds his own business but makes money out of exploiting the Jewish people with whom he has nothing in common. Until he does.
© Tony McKibbin