Plein Soleil Review
Rene Clement was one of the most important directors working in French cinema during the 1940s and 1950s. He was determined to make entertaining films which were also serious and won great acclaim for works such as La Battaile du rail, The Walls of Malapaga and particularly, Les Jeux Interdits which was, for a time, widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. He fell out of fashion during the late 1950s however and in an attempt to reinvent himself, he decided to make a thriller in vivid colour and in the New Wave style, based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Talented Mr Ripley. The result was Plein Soleil, released in the UK as Purple Noon, a film which is still regarded as one of the best adaptations of Highsmith’s work.
Alain Delon brings his staggering beauty to the role of Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s sociopathic charmer, a man who strides casually through the havoc that he wreaks. The film streamlines the plot of the novel, beginning with Ripley already friends with Philippe Greenleaf (Ronet) and moving quickly on to the fatal boat trip where he decides to take revenge on his friend for a practical joke. Greenleaf is a rather nasty piece of work, something which Ronet evokes very well, and this gives Ripley his own somewhat twisted moral get-out clause for murder. Once Greenleaf is out of the way, Ripley embarks on a complex plan to steal his victim’s identity but finds himself trapped in an escalating series of crimes.
The film is a beautiful piece of work on several levels but most notably, it is visually stunning. The cinematographer Henri Decae had worked with Melville and Chabrol and established a notable ability to work quickly on location using inventive camera movement. This recommended him to Clement, who was concerned about the numerous nautical sequences in the film, and the two worked in perfect harmony. The use of colour is particularly striking with the blue of the ocean contrasted with the remorseless sun beating down on the handsome hero, often stripped to the waist to show off his six pack and sun-tan. Using the mobile camera, Clement orchestrates wonderful action sequences, particularly once Ripley has killed Greenleaf and is suddenly caught up in a storm with a corpse to dispose of. Indeed, the suspense during the second half of the film is often immense and it would be unfair to spoil the twists and turns of the plot – although it’s also only fair to say that the climax is a compromised disappointment and the one thing which Anthony Minghella improved upon in his own film of the book.
Tom Ripley is a difficult character to put on film because we’re meant to be fascinated by his villainy and while he’s not exactly an anti-hero, his amoral energy is invigorating and amusing. John Malkovich got it right in the 2003 film Ripley’s Game but he wasn’t good looking enough for the part – Ripley is meant to be stunningly attractive - and I found Matt Damon rather bland. Alain Delon is just about pefect however because his good looks are combined with watchful, mistrusting eyes which express an awful lot more than the dialogue. Maurice Ronet plays with him very well as the unsympathetic Greenleaf and Maria Laforet is heartrendingly beautiful as the unknowing Marge.
Were it not for the cop-out ending which is entirely against the spirit of the book, Plein Soleil would rank, along with Strangers on a Train, as the best Highsmith adaptation put on film. The witty, terse screenplay keeps us amused and the pace is just right, particularly after the murder. Rene Clement never puts a foot wrong in knowing where the put the camera or when to emphasise a grace note in a performance and he manages to make us complicit with Ripley, hoping that his twisted scheme might just work out. Beautiful to watch and genuinely exciting, Plein Soleil is a hugely entertaining film which still works like a charm after fifty years.
Plein Soleil is one of the most beautiful colour films ever made so the prospect of a Blu-Ray produced from a 4K film restoration was one which made me very excited. Criterion’s recent release looked absolutely lovely so this, surely, could only be even better. No dice I’m afraid. I don’t quite know what went wrong and where along the line it went wrong, but this image looks absolutely horrible. But let me immediately qualify that. In some respects, you can see that great care has been taken. The source looks as good as new with no damage or blemishes of any kind and occasionally the colours are as they should be – the browns in general are fine and the fleshtones appear natural. But what’s happened is that a filtering process has taken place which has flattened out the image and suppressed grain, detail and contrast to a disastrous extent. Even worse, the colours are often inconsistent and sometimes lifeless while, most disappointingly, the blacks appear borderline blue in places and sometimes almost opaque. You’re left, in the end, with a beautifully shot film that seems to be hiding underneath a layer of other material. I don’t think that anyone could gauge this as anything but a huge disappointment. Whether the actual film restoration prior to the Blu-Ray transfer looks any better is a moot point and I hope to see the film in the cinema next week in order to find out.
Thankfully, nothing has gone wrong with the audio. The lossless French mono track sounds absolutely fine with some very atmospheric moments. Nino Rota’s memorable score comes out very well too.
The best reason to consider this Studiocanal Blu-Ray is the extra material. First up is a splendid new twenty minute interview with Alain Delon. Now in his seventies, Delon still looks disgustingly handsome and has a lot to say about the film which made his name. He gives Rene Clement credit for teaching him about film acting and the process of making films, and considers him the greatest director he ever worked with; high praise when you think he’s worked with Antonioni, Visconti, Melville , Losey, and, er, Michael Winner. Delon’s range of knowledge and eloquence make him a pleasure to listen to, especially his insights into how good looks only go so far when a camera is placed on you. This interview is in French with English subtitles.
We also get a lengthy documentary about the director Rene Clement and his importance to French cinema. This runs 67 minutes and is full of fascinating material although it may seem hard going to anyone not already versed in the subject. Everyone talking about Clement clearly adored him and they are very defensive about the way he was treated by the Nouvelle Vague directors. Delon appears again, along with numerous collaborators including the actress Brigitte Fossey and the very talkative screenwriter Jean-Charles Tacchella. It’s made clear that in some respects, with Plein Soleil, Clement beat the New Wave boys at their own game having taken hints from Claude Chabrol. There’s also some excellent audio material from a 1980 interview with the director.
Finally, there is a restoration comparison which demonstrates that while the elements have been improved with the restoration process, the general appearance is as flat as a pancake.
It’s difficult to know how Studiocanal could have got it so wrong with a sure-fire success like Plein Soleil but they have done. The result is impossible to recommend and fans of the film should look instead to get either the Criterion Blu-Ray – although that is, unfortunately, locked to Region A.