The Shapeshifting Beauty of Alain Delon

To see the feline countenance of Alain Delon is to immediately understand his movie stardom. A New York retrospective surveys his career.
Christina Newland

Le samourai

To see the feline countenance of Alain Delon is to immediately understand his movie stardom. How could he have been anything else? It would almost be a cosmic insult to his beauty not to commit it to celluloid. But beyond the erotically-charged pin-up and genre tough guy, Delon would also become a respected actor with a long list of auteur collaborators: Visconti, Melville, Antonioni, Joseph Losey, and the like. The mega-star of European cinema, with his cold grey eyes and louche attitude, could be forbidding or aloof; dashing or innocent. There’s a chance to see all of those iterations of the actor at a new retrospective dedicated to him at New York’s Quad Cinema, aptly-titled "L’Homme Fatal."

Early in his career, Delon’s youthful beauty would be utilized in Luchino Visconti’s classics Rocco and his Brothers (1960) and The Leopard (1963), but filmmakers also quickly recognized his ability to play the cad, the deceiver, and the rogue: take René Clément’s Patricia Highsmith adaptation Purple Noon (1960), where a homicidal, seductive Delon plays Tom Ripley. He would be enshrined into existential gangster film legacy as hitman Jef Costello in Le samouraï (1967), and Jean-Pierre Melville would supply him with perhaps his most iconic roles. The endlessly poetic minimalism of the Melville / Delon collaborations (Un cercle rouge and Un flic among them) would make Delon’s cinema one of signifiers and symbols: a cat, a knife, a gun, a canary. He wears his loneliness like a mantle and his trench coat like a uniform. In similar films, like Henri Verneuil’s The Sicilian Clan (1969), he was united with older actors of the crime genre like Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin. Here, his type goes beyond the ritualistic and alienated men of Melville’s world: he’s a convicted murderer with a maniacal violent streak.

In his prime, there was something blade-like about the deceptively boyish Delon; even the soft vowels of his name end on spiky consonants. Everything about him seems sharp: both angular in features and prickly in demeanor. Delon was unlike most American leading men in his willingness to be disliked. Recall the actor’s criminal associations and his Sinatra-esque tendency to shill for real gangsters and thuggish right-wing politics. This is to say nothing of his rumored ties to a 1968 homicide.

Perhaps that’s why in his crime film outings with Jacques Deray—Borsalino (1970) and Le gang (1977) among them—Delon’s reputation is padded with old-time romantic mystique. This outlaw figure may seem, at times, a little bit toothless. George Roy Hill’s frothy period crime flick The Sting (1973) fell between the releases of these French films, suggesting Deray’s major influence on it, and all three films are nattily-costumed commercial prospects, seeing the charismatic tough through rose-tinted lenses. In Le gang, Delon and his crew are bank robbers operating right after the Second World War and seen mainly from the perspective of besotted girlfriend Marinette (Nicole Calfan).  Yet the film’s bloodless larks and nostalgic tone are shot through with references to Vichy collaboration, the deportation of Jews, and anti-Algerian sentiment of police at the time; Delon’s populist genre fare never lacked wider insight. Le gang also distinguishes itself from Hollywood-like escapism with its bleak conclusion, leaving an anguished Marinette in freeze-frame over the closing credits. This may be among the closest any of Delon’s films came to commenting on the overwhelmingly patriarchal sexual politics of their milieu.

Much like the legendary work he did with Melville, Alain Delon’s movie stardom seems to be a Gallic reworking of American film vocabulary. From devising heists to personifying smooth Alan Ladd-esque hitmen, he remixed old archetypes and performed most of his roles as variations on a theme. Given how inflected with Hollywood both his persona and his star power are, his lack of success in America has always seemed strange. But Delon never could seem to find a foothold, starring in various unremarkable projects like Once a Thief (1965), opposite Ann-Margret and Van Heflin. The omission of any Hollywood-made fare in the retrospective speaks volumes on Delon’s minimal dent there.

The series touches on Delon’s early leading roles and hits all the major stops along the way, but the program also makes time to veer off-road somewhat. These are the real curiosities of Delon’s long career. Perhaps some of this breathing room came from the aging process. As time wore on, Delon’s features became worn by his years of debauch and weathered by the sun. His cheeks grew baggier, and those cold eyes were daubed with half-moon rings. The near-vampiric beauty of his youth made him seem prematurely haggard, but also maybe more human. No longer the self-contained Narcissus of his early mode, he starred in stranger films: romantic drama Notre histoire (1984), where he subverts his onscreen type and plays a rumpled middle-aged alcoholic. He also turns up in a  surprising role in literary adaptation Swann in Love (1984), playing a flamboyantly gay nobleman.

In the most recent of the films being screened—Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle vague (1990)—Delon is a mysterious interloper in a corporate world. This was his first time working with Godard, another overpowering icon of 60s French cinema. The result is fascinating, reading perhaps partly as a sly commentary on the moneyed glamour of Delon’s life and the concept of dueling selves—person vs. persona. In the film, Delon has a doppelganger or identical twin of some kind, though it is never explained. About a decade after Nouvelle vague’s release, Delon would give a magazine interview that summed up that balancing act pretty well: "All my life, I've played at being Alain Delon," he said. "For the rest, I couldn't give a damn."

L'Homme Fatal: Alain Delon is playing at New York's Quad Cinema from August 31 - September 14, 2018.

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