|Director: René Clément
Starring: Alain Delon, Maurice Ronet, Romy Schneider, Marie Laforêt, Erno Crisa, Frank Latimore
Any true cinephile is familiar with the French New Wave or Nouvelle Vague, a movement of rebellious young men (with a couple exceptions) most with backgrounds in film theory and criticism, who embraced Bazin’s concept of auteurism in the early 60s and took to the streets with hand-held cameras and loose scripts, changing the concept of art cinema forever. Theirs was a highly political brand of filmmaking, and some of the most famous amongst them (Truffaut in particular) made a point of publicly decrying the work of more conventional French directors who came before them.
One of those directors on the receiving end of this public defaming was Réné Clément, whose diverse filmography includes both Cannes prize-winners (Battle of the Rails, 1946) and infamous box-office flops (Is Paris Burning?, 1966). Caught in an interstitial moment in cinematic history, Clément was viewed by Truffaut and company in the late 1950s as something of an anachronism, a member of the old guard against whom the Nouvelle Vague was struggling to define itself. Far from remaining set in the ways of filmmaking that he had learned at the start of his career in the 30s and 40s, however, Clément evolved with the times, and his 1960 film (the same year as Godard’s Breathless and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) Plein Soleil—Purple Noon in the US—is an interesting compromise between the more traditional, linear narratives popular in the 1950s across Western Europe, and the anarchic urges of the Nouvelle Vague that were already coming into vogue.
Plein Soleil is based on the novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by American mystery writer Patricia Highsmith, perhaps indicating that Clément followed Hitchcock’s lead (he was famously revered by Truffaut and company) in having adapted Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train in 1951. Contemporary readers will probably be more familiar with the very underrated 1999 Hollywood adaptation of the same name directed by Anthony Minghella. But Plein Soleil has long enjoyed a sterling reputation among great American directors such as Scorsese, almost a refraction of Truffaut’s obsession with Hitchcock’s work.
Having drafted Truffaut’s very own cinematographer from The 400 Blows, Henri Decaë, Clément succeeds in giving Plein Soleil an ineffable nonchalance that feels very in tune with the carefree-yet-revolutionary ethos of, say, the lovers in Breathless. Star Alain Delon, in his career-making role, perfectly captures the coolness of the historical moment and the desperation of a man just one step ahead of his own game. Delon plays Tom Ripley, a devious sociopath who leeches off of a rich friend (played by Maurice Ronet) and ends up murdering him in order to take on his identity. Marie Laforet co-stars as the woman scorned, who becomes completely overwhelmed when her difficult lover finally disappears for good. Though an important change is made to the end of the story in this version—he doesn’t get away with it—Plein Soleil is still an exciting psychological thriller, albeit one filtered through the sometimes tedious style of the day. This isn’t a thriller like Strangers on a Train; it’s slow, atmospheric, even ponderous—but its jolts of adrenaline, such as the fantastically filmed confrontation between the two male leads aboard a sailboat, make it worth sticking out.
Now, though already released on Blu Ray by Criterion last winter, Studio Canal has mounted a full-on restoration of Plein Soleil for its own Blu Ray release, a project made possible by collaboration among many French and American cultural organizations and the Immagine Rotrovata restoration laboratory in Bologna, Italy. As demonstrated by one of the special features, which displays split-screen comparisons of the film before and after, the actual restoration seems very impressive, but the end result, as transferred to this blu-ray release, leaves something to be desired. Quite a bit of filtration seems to have been applied—so much so that the images seems washed out. Film grain is virtually nonexistent and some of the finer details are a bit fuzzy. There are also signs of edge enhancement. Contrast also suffers quite a bit, especially at the dark end. The film print itself seems to be in excellent shape, though. See the screen grabs in this review for a direct assessment.
Though the film’s sound design is sometimes sparse, nothing seems muted or missing; the music, composed by Nino Rota of La Dolce Vita and The Godfather, is haunting, and the dialogue is well-rendered even when the French being spoken is dubiously accented at best. Rota’s use of bells and chimes is directly alluded to in the soundtrack to Minghella’s remake, and his focus on jazz-influenced chord progressions and chromaticism gives the film a timely yet off-kilter feeling throughout. Nothing quite lines up properly in the film’s aural universe. During the climactic sailboat scenes, the lapping waves feel like they’re right beside you, ready to swallow you at a moment’s notice and keep on going. NOTE: in addition to the original French soundtrack, there is also an English dub track to choose from.
Aside from the problematic video, the only other part of this release with which I take issue is the rather short measure of its special features. There is an illuminating featurette on the history of the New Wave and how Clément fit into it (or didn’t), and another small feature on Delon himself, much of which focuses on his working relationship with Clément, whom he describes as the greatest director he ever worked with (a bold claim from someone who worked with Melville and Antonioni, to be sure). The release would be even stronger with a more detailed feature on the restoration, in addition to the split-screen before-and-after comparison, and there is no audio commentary track to the film itself, something that would certainly be of interest to anyone curious about the conditions of production or, for example, the stunt work and cinematography involved in the sailboat sequences. A gesture towards Highsmith wouldn’t go amiss here either, as she was a fan of the film except for its ending, which she considered a concession to censors.
A beautiful film that deserves more attention for its place not quite within and not quite outside of the Nouvelle Vague canon.
~ By Lita Robinson