Mr. Klein. Image courtesy of Rialto Pictures and Studio Canal.
A clearly apathetic doctor, void of any discernable emotion or trace of compassion, recites what amounts to a clinical inventory of physical features, calling out the attributes of an embarrassed, frightened nude woman. She may be Jewish—that’s what his bodily enumeration looks to determine—but he notes that her attitude during the exam is, apparently, “not Jewish.” One particular image during this sequence, which opens Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein, depicts the doctor probing his fingers into the woman’s strained mouth, examining her teeth, gums, and whatever else his rooting around may reveal. It’s a notable image because the next time something similar is seen in the film, it’s of an attractive younger woman applying lipstick, shown in a comparably framed close-up of her mouth with decidedly differing connotations. This is Jeanine, played by Juliet Berto, the rather simpleminded mistress of Alain Delon’s Robert Klein. And this is the first of several such moments in Losey’s 1976 feature where comparisons and contrasts coalesce in imagery and literal action, engendering a complex, intertwined, and steadily obscured portrait of dual, disparate worlds.
Klein is a well-off, evidently successful art dealer in Nazi-occupied Paris. He has recently been purchasing paintings at meager prices from a perceptively desperate Jewish clientele, which are hardly in the position to bargain. He’s prudent all the same, though, requiring a receipt of sale as documentation; as he says repeatedly, it’s just “a formality.” Be that as it may, the phrasing is a sampling of biting, bitter foreshadowing, for not long after one such transaction, Klein is soon at the mercy of similar administrative protocol, with far more ominous repercussions. A Roman Catholic who embraces his generally apolitical stance—no strong leanings one way or the other except to his own wellbeing—Klein discovers on his doorstep a copy of Informations Juives (“Jewish Information”), a local Jewish newspaper. It has the correct address and bears his name, but he certainly wouldn’t subscribe to such a publication. Fearing the implications of this ethnic-periodical association, Klein confronts the publishers and reports the potentially disastrous error to skeptical authorities. That there is, it would seem, another Robert Klein, presumably Jewish, sits uneasy with Delon’s Klein, who launches his own investigation into the oversight. Who is this other Robert Klein anyway, and is he perhaps behind the indiscretion? Or is someone else? Was it a mere accident, or something more nefarious? What becomes an inquiry launched out of dire necessity swells into one of compulsive, and not altogether unrelated, curiosity.
Delon’s character, who exists relatively footloose and fancy-free during these trying times, coasts along on his sociopolitical detachment. He thinks nothing of frequenting a café sporting anti-Semitic signage, and at first he wonders if the whole mix-up is part of some joke, an off-hand suggestion not taken kindly by an employee of the Jewish newspaper. But when he struggles to secure the necessary ancestral certification, this indifference soon catches up with him—indifference being Mr. Klein’s overriding theme and a trait Klein’s father later cautions him about—and he swiftly realizes the somber gravity of what he has unwittingly provoked. The incremental evolution of Klein’s personality, from cavalier to panicked, and the wavering oscillation between his apprehension and his inquisitiveness, is realized with suitably gradual, subtle precision by Losey, who efficiently balances the film’s tottering tones, its merging of mysterious mistaken identity (replete with the standard tropes of a tense metaphorical thriller) and its increasingly resonant, increasingly profound, and increasingly life-altering significance.
The search for his elusive doppelgänger entangles Klein in Mr. Klein’s interminable rigidity, building from the rigmaroles of bureaucratic fastidiousness and expanding to the pervasive glances that regularly suspect Delon’s hapless, frantic, and fraught protagonist. He is vexed by the contradictory aspects of this alternative Klein’s life, and the search for his ostensible double reveals a man who is himself living something of a splintered existence. The stranger lives both a life of luxury and poverty. Klein visits his squalid apartment, where the landlady remarks on their outward similarities, and is repulsed by the building’s moldy wallpaper and the rat droppings littered throughout the room. But this Klein is also acquainted with upper-crust society, which Delon’s Klein stumbles into when he likewise visits a posh chateau and meets Klein’s aristocratic mistress, played by none other than the always radiant Jeanne Moreau. Introduced in cunning, understated fashion by Losey, most of those whom Klein encounters only add to the ambiguity of his predicament. Some are appropriately concerned, others aren’t even surprised, or aren’t surprised enough, by the bizarre situation—are they also involved? Time is of the essence either way, and it doesn’t take long before this sense of urgency spurs on Klein’s paranoia; at a restaurant, he refuses to acknowledge the bellhop who calls his name, lest it be a trick to rouse Klein from his seat. Or maybe the other Klein is actually there, also waiting to see what transpires? So much of Mr. Klein is driven by what is left unseen and unanswered, offering up no more relief for the viewer than it does for Klein, who at once desires to distance himself from the furtive “other” Klein and yet can’t help but grow progressively consumed by the enigmatic prospect of his twofold identity. The fixation surges to the point where his central sense of being grows skewed, especially as he begins to question his own cultural origins.
Selected for the competition of the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, where it lost to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Mr. Klein did garner multiple César Awards in 1977, for best film, director, and production design. It was nominated for four others, including one for Delon as best actor. Having previously appeared in Losey’s The Assassination of Trotsky (1972), Delon, who also helped produce Mr. Klein, supports the picture with a nuanced performance, maneuvering from one emotional gradation to another and hovering ever-so-pensively in multiple median zones. Klein descends into a fanatical, Kafkaesque spiral. His determined wanderings routinely take him two steps forward and one step back, the shifting psychological and political corollaries shaping the very core of his soul with an austere depth of reflection. In his 1977 New York Times review of Mr. Klein, Vincent Canby declared, “Mr. Delon is not aging especially well,” adding, “Other actors with careers as long as his acquire, over the years, a lot of useful baggage in the form of associations to earlier performances. Mr. Delon has traveled a lot but his baggage is empty.” Disregarding Canby’s bizarrely ageist assertion, Delon’s initial aloofness, his cool, measured veneer, must surely evoke his similarly-styled turn in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï (1967). Only here, if anything, Delon augments such comportment by the way he conveys the punishing, anxious leveling of his dissociated façade. His becomes the face of discreet concern, and while Mr. Klein benefits tremendously from Losey’s discriminating direction and the restrained visual angst of Gerry Fisher’s cinematography, the prevalent aura of lurking danger, of threats emerging from any given direction or fresh set of happenstances, is read largely through the eyes of Delon’s beleaguered Robert Klein.
Mr. Klein was the penultimate script by Franco Solinas, who wrote Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapò (1960) and Battle of Algiers (1966), as well as Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano (1962) and Costa‐Gavras’s State of Siege (1972), among other distinguished works. And like these political dramas, it too weaves together numerous strands of sociopolitical intrigue, arguably with an even narrower, singularly engaging focus. The sweeping ramifications of the story are also similar. Losey, an American expatriate who left the U.S. in the wake of the House Committee on Un-American Activities blacklisting in 1951, stirred up considerable controversy with Mr. Klein’s sensitive subject matter, and certainly its conclusion is among the more distressing moments of World War II-based cinema, as Klein is literally swept away by the July 1942 herding of Parisian Jews on the day known as “La Rafle” (the round-up), where 13,000 were arrested and amassed in an arena on their way to boxcars bound for Auschwitz. The horror of the incident, and all the horrors that surround it, imbed Mr. Klein in an obviously momentous historical context. Yet its larger allusions tap into a universal naïveté, still existing today, where simplistic estrangement and passivity are the norm until the fateful day one is directly involved. Perhaps echoing his American debacle, Losey’s call for engagement is one advocating life beyond the carefully controlled, urging a society to bear witness to unfamiliar fates decided by the contents of a filing cabinet. The guilt of collaboration can stem simply from one’s complicit silence, but the uncertainty can prompt, just as persuasively, a sublime moment of active self-reflection. As in the strange case of Mr. Klein, however, it’s often a matter of doing so before it’s too late.
Joseph Losey's Mr. Klein shows September 6 – 19, 2019 at Film Forum in New York.