Plein Soleil

Plein Soleil

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Condemned now to exist in the shadow of a talented impersonator, this earlier adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's remarkable novel has been all too readily overlooked, despite possessing considerable charms of its own. It might not be quite as sharp or polished as The Talented Mr Ripley, which stole some of its best tricks, but its naturalism gives the story an invigorating freshness and it has no shortage of character.

Alain Delon is Tom Ripley, hired by a rich businessman who wants his wayward son returned to him. Maurice Ronet is the son, Philippe, happier to live an easy live with girlfriend Marge (a sultry Marie Laforêt) or to dally with strangers in other cities. One of the things Philippe loves most is his yacht, also named Marge. Idly cruising on blue waters, she symbolises his wealth and his freedom whilst providing an intimate locus for escalating tension. Tom drifts in a lifeboat, his skin blistering in the sun, as Philippe and Marge make love below decks. Tom wants to be inside. He wants to be a part of things. Increasingly obsessed, he begins to use his natural talent for imitation to take over small parts of Philippe's life. The trouble is, he keeps wanting more.

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Ronet's Philippe is a subtle beast, rarely overtly monstrous but cruel in the way of those who do not fully comprehend the humanness of other people. Financially an emotionally dependent on him, Marge struggles to give voice to her own ambitions, though Laforêt gives her passion and depth. Both are fully rounded characters; their relationship feels like an old thing, organic. Tom, meanwhile, begins as an insubstantial creature, taking form only as he absorbs personality from others. It is to Delon's great credit that he keeps the viewer interested throughout this process. He also undergoes a physical transformation, initially stooped and unkempt beside the stylish Ronet, gradually letting his natural beauty shine through. Tom is a weed coming into bloom, but it's dangerous to underestimate his toughness.

Throughout everything, there's the sun. Even as the story grows darker, scenes teeter on the edge of being overexposed. The most audacious deeds are committed in the open, with Tom's talent for deception matched by his compulsion to take risks. The danger he courts seems to define his masculinity, illuminating the pretence on which Philippe's is built, yet he remains a sensual, vulnerable figure, perhaps too easily seduced by what he hopes to conquer.

Still absorbing after all these years, Plein Soleil is a film whose vivid imagery lingers long after the credits fade. Its narrative twists and turns are never allowed to overwhelm the tensions at its core, and its atmosphere brooks no imitations.

Reviewed on: 24 Aug 2013
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A young man with a natural talent for impersonation inveigles himself into the life of a wealthy couple.
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Director: René Clément

Writer: René Clément, based on the book by Patricia Highsmith.

Starring: Alain Delon, Maurice Ronet, Marie Laforêt, Billy Kearns

Year: 1960

Runtime: 118 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: France, Italy

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