Delon: Women pushed me forward

Honorary Cannes Palme for an 'accidental' icon

by Richard Mowe

Alain Delon on the red carpet in Cannes
Alain Delon on the red carpet in Cannes Photo: Richard Mowe
French icon Alain Delon who is the controversial recipient of an honorary Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival credits the women in his life for persuading him to take up a career in cinema.

He suggests it all happened “by accident”. He first came to Cannes in 1956 with an actress friend Brigitte Auber for the Alfred Hitchcock comedy-thriller To Catch A Thief, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, in which she had a role. He had been in Indo-China in the Army for three years and had no plan for his future on his return to France.

“I went up the red carpet with her and everyone else and people wanted to know what I done, and who I was. In those days I guess I wasn’t too ugly,” said Delon with a self-deprecatory smile.

“If I had not met the women I have encountered then I would have been dead a long time ago,” added the 83-year-old. “They pushed me forward.”

His first film role was in Send A Woman When The Devil Fails (Quand La Femme s'en Mêle), in 1957, directed by Yves Allégret and starring Edwige Feuillère, Jean Servais, Bernard Blier, and Pierre Mondy. Delon, who came from the suburbs and whose parents split when he was five, plays a young hitman Jo.

Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï
Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï Photo: Unifrance
He said: “I did not feel immediately home on the set but I became accustomed to it all very quickly. They had to fight to get me to do it. On the first day on the set the director said he would like to see me for a few minutes because he had things to say to me. He took me into my dressing room and said something that would mark me for life and was so important.

“He said ‘Listen Alain, you know your character so don’t act, don’t play just look the way you look at me and talk the way you talk to me. And listen the way you would listen to me. Do everything the way you would do it yourself. Don’t act, live it, be alive.’ That gave me everything right away and it marked me for the rest of my life.”

Without a formal training, Delon considers himself as a player rather than actor like such co-stars as Burt Lancaster from The Leopard and Jean-Paul Belmondo from Borsalino. He said: "I am more like Lino Ventura or even Bernard Tapie (the French politician turned sometime actor) who come from real life. I came from the Army, not drama school and I was just placed in front of a camera.”

Delon soon felt that he was in his element. He added: “The camera for me was like a woman and I was looking in to her eyes.”

In 1959, he achieved international fame and recognition thanks to René Clément’s Purple Noon (Plein Soleil). The part of Tom Ripley originally was not destined for him. He was slotted for the secondary role taken by Maurice Ronet, who is killed at the beginning of the film.

Delon recalls being invited to a dinner at director René Clément’s house in Paris. He said: “We were with the late Hakim brothers who were the producers as well as Clément and his wife Eva. I said I wanted the part of Ripley but they said no because I had never done anything major. Then there was silence but a voice came from the kitchen and it was Eva telling René that the ‘little guy’ was right and I should get the main part. You could not invent something like that."

Alain Delon in Rocco And His Brothers
Alain Delon in Rocco And His Brothers
Clément also gave Delon the same advice he had received on his first film. “I was to be myself and to live in the part as I would do in my life and to speak as I speak.”

After Purple Noon Delon moved on to Rocco And His Brothers for Visconti in 1961. He said: “The role came about because Visconti saw Purple Noon and let it be known that he had to have me in his next film as Rocco. If I had not made Purple Noon then probably I would never have met Visconti.”

The 1970s proved to be a fruitful time for the star, who had also turned to producing. Despite his right-wing views, Delon helped Communist Joseph Losey, exiled to England by the McCarthy witch hunts, to mount Mr Klein, which was the film shown as part of the tribute evening and in which Delon gives one of his most electrifying performances.

He added: “I wanted to produce it because I had never done anything like it previously. And Losey changed the ending which had me being saved from the round-up of the Jews. I felt it would be stronger if the character went to the camps and Losey agreed. I was only ten years old at the time of the War. You listen to your parents and friends, but you do not really understand what was happening.”

Although Mr Klein did not receive the appreciation it deserved when it was screened at Cannes in 1976 Delon feels certain of a different reception at his tribute evening.

The actor is much appreciated in Japan where he is nicknamed “Spring Samurai” after one of his most memorable roles in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï as a monastic hired assassin.

He has worked with many of the international directorial greats, among them Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni but he was never considered a likely candidate by the denizens of the New Wave.

He has been in Cannes many times over the years, notably for Visconti’s The Leopard in 1963, although previously he has admitted an uneasy relationship with the festival - and this year he's faced #MeToo protests by campaigners who have branded him "a misogynist". A petition was also launched calling the festival to abandon the honour. Delon divorced his first wife Nathalie in 1968 when he met actress Mireille Darc. The actor also was involved with Romy Schneider with whom he co-starred in the film Christine in 1958 and with whom he went on to make Jacques Deray’s La Piscine. He was chosen from among 150 actors for the role opposite Schneider in Christine, which gave the actress a whole new career in France with the likes of Claude Sautet.

Delon considers that the impetus for leading him to cinema was simply that “it was in my head”, he added, with some modesty: “I suppose I had a certain talent.”

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