The Ripley novels written by Patricia Highsmith have been filmed several times. The first novel in particular has two very famous cinematic adaptations to boast of. These two films – René Clément’s Plein Soleil and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley – both excellent and both containing star turns from their leading actors, are even more fascinating because they are both so very different in style and character, it is almost difficult to believe that they are based on the same novel.
Tom Ripley is on holiday with his friend Philippe, whose father has asked Tom to make sure his son comes to see him in San Francisco, for a reward of five thousand dollars. Philippe is engaged to the beautiful Marge, and puts on the persona of chauvinistic play-boy. Tom, we sense, is deeply unsatisfied with his present life; he has no money and is frustratingly dependent on Philippe. Clément unravels the friendship between Tom and Philippe with great speed and cleverly does not at first give us all the details of their back-story. Gradually, we realise that Tom is not all that he seems and his plans, begun in a marvellously tense set piece on board a sailing boat, steer the film in an ever darker direction.
Plein Soleil is perhaps best known these days for launching the career of the then largely unknown Alain Delon, one of the most enigmatically beautiful and talented actors to have emerged out of French cinema. Ripley, as embodied by Delon, is a cold, selfish, demonically beautiful and intelligent man, a far cry from the sad, insecure, sexually ambiguous character that Matt Damon gave us over thirty years later.
The film, restored and re-released as part of this year’s selection of Cannes Classics, looks as stylish and sexy as it did back then, even if the details of its murky tale show how dated the film’s plot has become. I have seen both films more than once, and in my opinion, Minghella’s is the better overall. It is deeper and sadder, replete with prickling tension while maintaining a ruthless humour and satirical edge. Plein Soleil is a straight-forward, if very accomplished, suspense thriller, with many gleeful Hitchcockian games to enjoy. It’s a shame that Clément seems to lose his nerve at the end of the film, bowing before the moral demands of an audience of that time, but it is no matter. This is still a wonderfully entertaining, gorgeously filmed slice of French cinema and it is wonderful to see it back on the big screen.
Review by LiveWire Film Critic, James Martin (September ’13)