Monsieur Ripois (1954), directed by René Clément, is a rather wonderful and sophisticated drama/character study which deposits scheming philanderer Gérard Philipe into the heart of austerity-era England, where he ruthlessly hoovers up all the stray birds who are hanging around waiting for London to start swinging. The story unfolds one evening as Ripois has lured his soon-to-be-ex-wife's attractive friend to his flat, and recounts the story of his amorous adventures to her in hopes of proving the sincerity of his affections. But since his story is nothing but a catalogue of lies, seduction, betrayal and headlong flight, it's hard to see whether his cause can be won...
One of the pleasures of this film, a decently budgeted affair nevertheless doused in an air of poverty and gloom endemic to the UK at that time, is that it's a French movie made in Britain. So we get to hear the dashing, talented Philippe fail to pronounce "Green Park Station" and "Manchester pudding," which is amusing enough. The director is French, his cinematographer is the English wizard, Ossie Morris (Moby Dick, Lolita, The Hill). The bilingual script is by Hugh Mills (a few interesting credits including the underrated So Long at the Fair) and oulipo king Raymond Queneau, as well as the director himself. And Philipe rubs shoulders and other parts with a glamorous array of English totty, from husky Joan Greenwood to swellegant Valerie Hobson. But the bizarre aspect is that everybody speaks French 90% of the time. Occasionally, we'll hear a couple of Brits chin-wagging en englais, and the BBC Home Service broadcasts in reassuringly plummy tones, but there are odd moments when Philippe walks into a pub and perfect strangers are already conversing in French. It's like watching a radio with tuning that drifts.
Whatever inadvertent amusement is to be derived from this, it's really a secondary pleasure compared to the wit and cynicism of the film. Philipe, whose soulful, sleepy-eyed face hides the mind of near-psychopath, bent not on crime but on sex and a kind of temporary, provisional romance, is an appealing enough actor to make his character's misdeeds not exactly forgivable, but not too off-putting. Plus, the charm of this kind of amoral tale is that one can watch in fascinated horror to see how the fellow is going to outrage our better instincts next. Sympathy and identification are sometimes overrated. Although I did markedly empathize with the line, "It was amazing to me how much money there was in the world, and how little in my pocket."
For Philipe is after riches as well as women, and to get them he starts by wooing his boss at the office where he works in some kind of mindless clerical position. Appalled by her domineering behavior at home (and the aforementioned Manchester pudding) he goes after Joan Greenwood, who reads "Gone with the Wind" on the bus and likes horror movies. Unable to have his way with her by conventional strategies such as progressively more assiduous groping (played offscreen while a dog, adopted by Philipe to make himself seem kind-hearted, reacts to the springs in an armchair twanging and protesting as the couple shift about: a bit of audio-visual comedy that serves as a reminder that Clément began his career directing a Jacques Tati short), he proposes marriage to her, screws her, then moves flat leaving no forwarding address.
After this bit of infamous behavior, it's pleasing to find him dismissed from his job and made homeless. More surprising humor results from his attempts to smuggle a few possessions out of his new flat, where he's behind on the rent. With a teapot inside his raincoat and a radio slung over one shoulder, dangling by its flex, he tries to squeeze past the burly, unsympathetic landlord in the mean hallway...
Homeless, our hero spends one night on a park bench before contemplating mugging a prostitute. Instead he throws himself on her mercy and soon becomes her boyfriend. As soon as she comes into money, he leaves her, taking the fifty pounds she'd promised him to set up in business. Philipe displays remarkable, graceful and eloquent physical acting throughout, and his manner as he carefully counts out the right amount of loot, and displays it with guilty defiance to his girlfriend's small dog, Tarzan, is an impressive piece of tragi-comedy. (Dogs are important in this film: see how many you can spot.)
With his ill-gotten gains, our anti-hero sets up in the worst possible line of business he could have chosen: teaching French. Oh Gerard! Haven't you noticed that the entire population of London is already fluent in this language? Sinking back towards poverty, he's rescued by Valerie Hobson, who comes to him for help with a translation project. Although dismayed by the material he uses to teach French literature—Boris Vian's "I Spit on Your Grave"—she's quickly won over by his Gallic charm, and he's won over by the fact that she has more money than hats; and she has a lot of hats.
Hobson's casting as the deceived wife is painfully apt, since she played the role so well in life: when you marry a conservative politician, it seems you're setting yourself up for the day when you have to stand by your embarrassed spouse in full the glare of media attention. Hobson's choice, John Profumo, happened to land in the biggest sex scandal of twentieth century British politics. She gets off relatively lightly in this movie.
All that's left is to see whether Gerard's tale will somehow melt the heart of the girl he declares he really, truly, honestly loves, Natasha Parry (the most glamorous woman in the film, which is saying quite a lot). But that's quite enough spoilers for now: the last five minutes of this smart, handsome movie are a concatenation of ironic reversals, juggling our love of surprises, our desire for the guilty to be punished, our sneaking fondness for reprehensible characters, our pleasure in the misfortune of others, our helplessness before star charisma, and our liking for neatness in a story. Imagine all those elements as faces on a die, spinning and bouncing rapidly before our eyes. Which one will land face up?
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.