International Film Review: Purple Noon (dir by Rene Clement)

Early on in the 1960 French film, Purple Noon, there’s a scene in which a young American con artist named Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) looks at his reflection in a mirror, leans forward, and kisses it.

What are we to make of this scene?  The easiest assumption would be to say that Ripley is a narcissist and certainly, there is some truth to that.  Delon was 25 when he appeared in Purple Noon and the famously handsome actor was probably never better-looking than he was at that time.  As well, Delon was an actor who brought, at the very least, a hint of narcissism to every role that he played.  That was a part of his appeal.  He looked like an angel but he moved like the devil and, when the camera focused on his face, it was easy to see that there were less than pure thoughts brewing underneath the beautiful surface.

However, in Purple Noon, there’s more to that mirror kiss than just Tom Ripley (or, for that matter, Alain Delon) admiring his own reflection.  Instead, Tom has dressed up in the clothes of Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) and, when he speaks to his reflection, he speaks in an imitation of Philippe’s voice.  He addresses his words not to his reflection but to Philippe’s girlfriend, Marge Duval (Marie Lefort).  When he kisses the mirror, is he kissing himself, Marg, Philippe, or himself as Philippe?  Perhaps every answer is correct.

Tom Ripley is a young man who doesn’t appear to have much going on inside of him but who has definitely learned how to fake it enough to get by.  He went to school with Philippe, a wealthy and casually cruel heir to a fortune. Because Philippe is currently living a rather decadent life in Europe, Tom has been hired by Philippe’s father to bring his son back to San Francisco.  Tom, who were told grew up without money and who Philippe’s father used to dislike because he felt that Tom’s manners were too “common,” is happy to finally be a part of Philippe’s world and, when we first see them together, it appears as if Philippe is happy to have Tom as a part of his life as well.  We watch as they give money to a blind man and then buy his cane.  Though Philippe is the one who proceeds to walk around with the cane while pretending to be blind, it’s hard not to notice that Tom is the one who suggested the idea to him.  For Philippe, deception is a game whereas, for Tom, it’s a way of life.

As the opening scene of the film suggests, things are not always how they seem.  It quickly becomes apparent that Philippe’s charm and money hides a cruel and sadistic streak and, when he grows bored with Tom’s sycophantic ways and Tom’s constant requests for money, Philippe decides to send him away.  Unfortunately, for Philippe, Tom is not ready to leave and he’s certainly not ready to abandon Marge, though it’s left to the viewer to decide if Tom is truly attracted to Marge or if he’s just attracted to the fact that she’s a part of Philippe’s world.  Because Tom has no identity, it is disarmingly easy for him to slip into a new one, whether it means becoming a friend, a criminal, a loyal employee, or even Philippe himself.  During one eventful afternoon, Tom and Philippe’s relationship comes to a violent conclusion while the two of them are on a yacht that’s floating in almost indescribably beautiful sea of water.

If this all sounds a bit familiar, it may be because, while Purple Noon may have been the first adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s classic novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, it was not the last.  In 1999, Matt Damon starred in The Talented Mr. Ripley, another adaptation of Highsmith’s classic thriller.  Directed by Anthony Minghella, The Talented Mr. Ripley is a bit more faithful to its source material than Purple Noon and yet I have to say that, even with all of the liberties that it takes to Highsmith’s original story, I actually prefer Purple Noon.  They’re both good films but Purple Noon is the one that sticks in the viewer’s mind.

While Matt Damon may be the better actor of the two, Alain Delon was the better Mr. Ripley.  Delon’s natural lack of expressiveness may have often made him seem stiff and remote as a performer but it is ideal for a character like Tom Ripley, one who only exists on the surface.  Whereas Damon’s Ripley is obviously unstable from the minute he makes his first appearance, Delon’s Ripley has perfected a sort of likable blandess.  The viewer can believe that Philippe and Marge would want to spend time with Delon’s Ripley while also understanding why Philippe would quickly grow bored with him and his superficial ways.  Damon’s Ripley realizes that his crimes have determined his future whereas Delon lives day-to-day as an existential con artist, improvising his way from one crime to another.  Whereas the second adaptation was a big and glamorous production, Purple Noon takes a far grittier approach.  Director Rene Clement emphasizes the shadows and the ominous atmosphere that dominates Ripley’s world.

Purple Noon does slightly alter Patricia Highsmith’s original ending, something that Highsmith was reportedly not at all happy about.  Highsmith reportedly felt that Alain Delon masterfully captured Ripley’s character while complaining that the film’s ending was a concession to “public morality.”  (Interestingly, when Wim Wenders made his own film about Tom Ripley, The American Friend, Highsmith had the opposite reaction, appreciating that the film retained her downbeat ending while complaining that Dennis Hopper’s performance as Ripley was not true to the character she had created.)  One can understand and even agree with Highsmith’s objections while also appreciating that the Purple Noon‘s ending does actually work quite well for the story that’s been told.  For all of his cleverness, not even Tom Ripley can escape the randomness of fate.

2 responses to “International Film Review: Purple Noon (dir by Rene Clement)

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review: 12/27/21 — 1/2/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

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