Eye For Film >> Movies >> Mr Klein (1976) Film Review
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel gave a speech on the perils of indifference at the White House in 1999, in which he said: "Indifference can be tempting - more than that, seductive... Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction."
This is the exact attitude that Joseph Losey aims to capture in his chilling and chilly assessment of Paris in 1942 as he considers the way life continued on pretty much as normal for most of the city in the run-up to the infamous Vel' d'Hiv' Roundup of Jewish families, notably done by the French gendarmes rather than German occupiers. The American director is not looking to recreate the historical fact down to the letter, but rather searching, more in the abstract, for an emotional truth about the city's indifference to a large number of its citizens. This coolness is emphasised from the film's, still shocking, opening scene in which a naked woman - who is just one character we will meet again before the credits - is being poked and prodded by a doctor as though she was a horse, who declares measurements and anti-Semitic observations, including, "Expression, more or less Jewish". This in itself would hold horror enough but the real kicker comes when we see she has to pay for 'the privilege'.
It's a perfect scene-setter for a city in acquiescent denial, before we meet art dealer Robert Klein (Alain Delon) a man who, we quickly learn, views much of his life as transactional and also knows a thing or two about capitalising on the situation as regards the Jewish families desperate to sell of their paintings in order to flee. Losey, who always had an eye on the architectural spaces his characters inhabited, allows Klein's opulent home and expensive dressing gown speak volumes about him, his immaculately tiled bathroom holding two of the first mirrors - a favourite prop of the director - that will pepper the film. Klein's cool ambiguity is also evidenced not just by the way that he carries out his business but also in the manner he treats his girlfriend Jeanine (Juliet Berto) as little more than another object kept about for his pleasure.
Klein's interest is piqued, however, when he receives a Jewish newsletter that appears to be addressed to him, although he is not Jewish. He heads both to the newspaper offices and the police in a bid to find out why he has received it. This not only puts him on the radar of the authorities in a way he may come to regret but also marks the first steps towards an obsession that will put him on a Kafkaesque hunt for his "double" throughout the course of a film that will retain its ambiguity to the last.
Losey had shown how adept he was at claustrophobic interiors before, with the likes of The Servant, but here he also shows a flair for more abstract sweeping cinema. Music isn't employed much in the film but it comes in with a bang in scenes in which we see the French gendarmes' cars whisking through the city streets, no dialogue needed to tell us what they're up to and all beautifully shot by Gerry Fisher in, reportedly, one or two takes. Music, again, heightens the sickly sense of complicity at an anti-Semitic cabaret Klein and his girlfriend attend. As Klein continues his hunt, he comes across a succession of people who know the other Robert, including his rich lover Florence (Jeanne Moreau) and is frequently mistaken for him, such as when he tries to track him down at a dinner party, hosted by Florence, only to be told, "They're expecting you". Losey's attention to detail is acute, whether it's the dark spaces on a wall where art work, now sold, once hung, his use of mirrors to capture the micro-expressions of Delon as he considers his own "double" or the seamless use of colour, like the moment when Florence's red housecoat as she runs down the drive for a secret assignation is mirrored by the red dressing gown of Klein we see reflected in his window as he watches from above.
The film runs on twin engines, the mystery of Klein and the growing anxiety surrounding the roundup, as Delon's character tries to prove he is not the Jewish Klein, a man who, at least initially, is secure in the knowledge that "it doesn't apply to me". Losey knew a thing or two about being 'hunted', although born to a comfortable life, he was chased from his homeland after being blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his Communist sympathies, and he brings all that tension to bear on Franco Solinas' script. Delon glides through the film like an elegant and well-tailored crocodile, cracks gradually appearing as they might on one of Klein's paintings, as he becomes increasingly aware he may be on the wrong end of this particular power game. As for Losey's grip on lingering ambiguity, is it obsession that drives Klein to make the choice he does in the closing moments of the film or could it be that he is even indifferent to his own fate?Reviewed on: 16 Sep 2021