Plein Soleil is a forgotten classic of 1960s French cinema. It’s a bold and captivating noir-thriller with a Hitchcockian vibe. This year, to mark the centenary of director René Clément’s birth, StudioCanal has beautifully restored the film to DVD and Blu-ray. Plein Soleil is now over 50 years old and is based on the popular novel The Talented Mr Ripley. Because of this, our review will contain some spoilerific details.
In the final years of the 1950s the French New Wave crashed down onto the cinematic landscape. From Jean-Luc Godard to Agnès Varda, its experimental filmmakers challenged some of the more stuffy and traditional storytelling techniques of previous decades. The then established and respected director, René Clément, considered his earlier films as influences on the movement.
Yet it is in his drama Plein Soleil (1960), released two years after the start of the French New Wave, that Clément really showcases the best of both film worlds, the new and the old. It is by all means a jigsaw of cinematic genres: its story is a straight noir, laced with the darkness and intrigue of a classic Hitchcock, but its cinematography has the radical flourishes of New Wave and Italian Neorealism filmmaking. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s best-selling novel The Talented Mr Ripley, and – for my money – better than Anthony Mingella’s 1999 film of the same name, Plein Soleil is a superb and deft movie.
Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) is a young and impressionable American who is hired to convince his money-splashing friend, Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), to return home and take over his father’s business. Tom travels to Italy, where Philippe is enjoying an indefinite holiday with his fiancée Marge (Marie Laforêt) and has no intention of going back to America. Tom grows fond of being included in Philippe and Marge’s luxurious, carefree lifestyle, and loses sight of what he has been hired to do.
Philippe eventually tires of Tom’s company. During a yachting trip, Philippe strands his friend in a dinghy for hours and hours, leaving him to burn in the mediterranean sun before he’s finally pulled back to the boat. In retaliation, Tom hatches a plan to kill Philippe, dump the body overboard, and return to dry land and assume his friend’s identity.
Plein Soleil itself means “blazing sun”. Set in summer on the Italian coastline, the film is drenched in gorgeous sunlight the whole way through. Henri Decaë’s (The 400 Blows) cinematography has an exquisite visual palette and shimmers with a glorious 1960s colour, the sort of antique tone that Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom tried to capture last year.
The fluid freedom of the camera is also a fascinating component, no doubt having an influence on later New Wave films Jules et Jim (1962) and Les Valseuses (1974). One of the best moments of Plein Soleil is when the camera seems to wander away from plot. Draping one of Philippe’s hand-tailored summer suits over his shoulder, Tom strolls through a summer fish market trying the local delicacies. There’s close-ups of eels, shrimp and rays, interspersed with images of the bustling Italian crowds. Tom struts around, confident and cool, in a convincing montage that effortlessly evokes the real coastal environment.
The section of the film that takes place on the yacht is also a particular highlight. Here, Plein Soleil really comes into its own, showing off a deep understanding of character as well as how to push forward a plot in a subtly spellbinding way. Tom and Philippe’s final conversations together, which take place in such an enclosed setting, purposefully hold back on what the audience knows is coming: the murder of Philippe. Clément cranks up the acute levels of tension, one notch at a time.
Once Tom has successfully become Philippe, however, Plein Soleil starts to lose some of its more intriguing qualities. Watching Tom work on copying – and then perfecting – Philippe’s signature is fascinating, as is the way he carefully forges his new passport, but once this is complete the plot slows up and starts to drag. Alain Delon is always convincing as the criminal anti-hero, but without the overhanging jeopardy of being found out there is something quite unsatisfying about the movie’s second half. Until, that is, the very last seconds of film.
Plein Soleil has a lot going for it, particularly so in StudioCanal’s newly restored edition. It’s a vital piece of European cinematic history that has never received the level of attention it deserves.
Plein Soleil is released on DVD and Blu-ray on September 16th