Alain Delon is a handsome French SOB, some say in life as well as on screen. He’s consistently cast, or as a producer casts himself, as the murderer, the gangster, the tough cop, the two-fisted outcast. He prowls through his films like a surly panther. His prolific output has now and then turned up a classic, but most of his work is in the French industry’s equivalent of B films, which means a lot of generic potboilers. The five films in this carefully selected, cheaply priced box are spread over three no-frills discs, and it’s a bargain for those who trawl the shallower end of French cinema’s swimming pool.
Let’s begin with The Swimming Pool (1969), the longest and most languid film here. Jacques Deray’s film takes its time, soaking up the Mediterranean sun, letting the water run over the youthful bodies of Delon and his leading lady, Romy Schneider. They play an unmarried couple on vacation from profitable careers, and much of the movie does as little as they do for long stretches, simply simmering and baking. Then a boorish sort-of friend drops by (Maurice Ronet, loud and starting on the flab) with his British daughter (the ravishing Jane Birkin, all enigmatic vacuity). Now the non-events start not-happening with an even more sunstruck buzz.
There’s a lengthy party sequence with a bunch of strangers from town, and we hear a couple of new faux-rock/folk songs by Michel Legrand and Alan & Marilyn Bergman (one of these, “Ask Yourself Why”, has popped up in various contexts since). The sexual tension builds mostly by having the camera look at its beautiful players in close-up and looking at them look at each other. Of course, Delon, Schneider and Birkin are the kind you really want to look at, and the movie serves up the casual voyeurism shamelessly. Naturally it’s leading to a sub-Chabrolian resolution as muted as the rest of the movie, and it takes two hours to get there. This is an observational suspense movie with an emphasis on sensuality and the quivering possibilities of space. It’s no higher than the second rung, with the first rung belonging to, say, Delon’s work with René Clément or Jean-Pierre Melville.
Diabolically Yours (1967) is a slightly earlier, slightly sillier suspense film that’s thoroughly enjoyable. Based on a pulp novel, it’s the old amnesia/plastic surgery gag. That should tell you all you need to know, but let’s belabor it because now we live in the era of amnesia. The most common profession in films today is hitman, and the most common characteristic is amnesia; thus the amnesiac hitman seems to be the emblem for our time. But these are old themes, at least dating back to some of the postwar noir films of Hollywood about WWII veterans suffering from amnesia and trying to figure out if they murdered someone last night. These literalized the sense of displacement and alienation of returning soldiers, changed men who had to forget what they’d done and take on a strange new postwar identity. That this theme has returned with a vengeance in recent times is revealing, but in Diabolically Yours it’s more of a historical hiccup. Director Julien Duvivier loosely works this generic theme by having Delon be a veteran of France’s Algerian war, a topic hardly ever mentioned in the era’s pop cinema.
He awakens in a hospital after the camera has been speeding subjectively down the road during the credits. He’s a newborn babe, but he likes his life. Senta Berger wanders in and announces that she’s his wife, and then she takes him to their big mansion in the country. While he tries to regain his memory, he keeps having odd dreams with psychedelic effects, and then there’s that sinister pseudo-Asian butler hanging around. The film works by keeping almost strictly to Delon’s point of view, a perspective that neither Delon nor the audience knows can be trusted.
Duvivier, whose last film this was, is something of a forgotten man in film history at the moment. His celebrated titles were in the ’30s (only Pèpè-le-Moko is currently available on US DVD), though he did some interesting films in Hollywood during WWII and his career goes back to the silent era. He worked steadily through the ’50s and early ’60s. Ironically, he died in car accident just after completing this film, from which he did not recover with amnesia; instead the audience seems to have the amnesia. He’d be a good candidate for another of these Lionsgate boxes.
Pierre Granier-Deferre’s The Widow Couderc (1971) is the shortest, tightest and best of these crime stories. It’s a Simenon movie, which is a mini-genre itself thanks to the prolific output of novelist Georges Simenon, and Granier-Deferre has contributed several films to this genre. This film is from one of Simenon’s psychological novels and, if faithful to the book, the primary psychology analyzed is that of the poisonous environment. This story opens with a newspaper headline about the Stavisky Affair of 1934, which locates the film historically and sociopolitically. Most viewers won’t know that Stavisky, about whom a film was made by Alain Resnais, was a con artist whose frauds and suspicious death triggered a crisis in the French government, including riots, resignations, new coalitions and an exacerbation of fascist, anti-Semitic and socialist and communist forces.
On the surface, this would seem to have little to do with the story of mysterious loner Delon wandering through a village and being taken on as a day laborer by hard-bitten widow Simone Signoret (broad but convincing), who’s engaged in a complicated feud over property with her in-laws across the river, but it explains the tenor of the times and why the paysans’ internecine grudges and suspicions of outsiders can lead to tragedy. The film accumulates details precisely and remorselessly in presenting a world where everyone has their faults and life comes down to accepting this fact or destroying each other, a context in which love and loyalty can become tragic flaws.
The Gypsy (1975) is the least interesting film here. Written and directed by José Giovanni from his own novel, this contextualizes Delon’s ruthless gangster as a man representing his socially outcast people. We see him kill a few guys for betraying him. His plotline is entwined with the story of an aging jewel thief (Paul Meurisse) on whom the police are closing in. The contrast between these characters who come together fatefully is not, after all, terribly revealing, except that they belong to different putative classes who are both on the wrong side of the law. Delon says Meurisse has everything when he sees the latter’s expensive pad, but the newly lonely Meurisse answers that one can’t have everything, fortunately. The best thing about this film is the lovely opening shot, which I presume was taken from a helicopter over a vast expanse, while we hear the music of Gypsy guitarist and French hero Django Reinhardt. There are also various “French” moments of moody poetry, such as expressing emotion by panning from a flock of seagulls to a close-up of Delon’s flinty eyes.
This film is the most extreme case of a curious feature of the English subtitles on these films: they sometimes seem to be transcriptions of the dubbed English track that was originally prepared for U.S. release back in the day–but none of these films provide that English track as an option. In The Gypsy, the subtitles even change character names and certain dialogue details in a way that clearly has nothing to do with the French dialogue. All the films offer the French track only with optional English subtitles (although the subtitles are burned into The Swimming Pool). Anyway, it’s certainly the case that most of these films had English tracks in the U.S. Diabolically Yours even showed up on an obscure VHS many years ago in its English-dubbed version. At this time in film history, with certain genre films and international co-productions, preparing an English track was sometimes done by the producers themselves and sometimes with the cooperation of some of the original actors, so it might be interesting to have the option.
Generically, the odd film out here is Our Story (1984), which like The Gypsy is produced by Delon. The opening credits give Notre Histoire the inappropriate subtitle Separate Rooms, but the box fortunately gives us the more accurate title. It’s not a thriller, it was made in the ’80s, and it’s from a genuinely prestigious director, Bertrand Blier. He’s a French romantic who pretends not to be by working in anarchic, hostile, controversial territory. This film turns out to be fascinating, a curious experiment that serves as a transition from his earlier films to the fierce romanticism of Too Beautiful for You. It begins as a sex fantasy on a train. Delon is weary and lonely, but he’s approached by a young hottie (Nathalie Baye, terrifically present in an elusive, demanding, frustrating role) who propositions him out of the blue. Then he follows her home and plants himself in her armchair, promising he won’t be any trouble.
From this point, the movie becomes increasingly surreal, chaotic and absurd. The self-consciousness about storytelling, the paradoxes and changes in direction are enough to keep the viewers disoriented, and either hooked or grating their teeth, but perhaps it doesn’t give away too much to say that everything, including the schizophrenic misogyny, does turn out to have a logical explanation, one which critics often find problematic but which can be appropriate.
Lionsgate has been gracing us recently with these little packages, apparently licensed from Studio Canal, ranging from boxes devoted to auteurs like Jean Renoir and Jean-Luc Godard to actors like Brigitte Bardot and upcoming sets on Catherine Deneuve and others. I don’t know what we’ve done to deserve this avalanche of sometimes minor material scattered with overlooked gems, but I hope it continues. A Jane Birkin box would be super. It would also be nice to see another Delon box, perhaps with the excellent thriller Joy House and The Sicilian Clan. I’d like to suggest that optional English tracks be provided when available and also music-only tracks — especially when the music, as on those two titles, is from artists of the caliber of Lalo Schifrin and Ennio Morricone. As a matter of fact, I’d love to see a box of titles united only by the fact that Morricone did the music. We can dream.