The Beautiful Blankness of Alain Delon: Purple Noon [01:56:17]

Alain Delon in Purple Noon | Criterion

The impossibly-beautiful Alain Delon reclines on a beach chair, his shirt open and his eyes closed to the sun. A large, blue umbrella takes up most of the background but does little to shield him from the daylight; the color of the umbrella forms a bridge between the deep blue of Delon’s linen shirt and the azure sea barely visible in the corner of the frame. He has a shot glass of tequila tipped to his lips, frozen there, savoring this moment before he quenches his thirst. The chain dangling on his bare chest glints in the sunlight as we behold: the movie star in repose.

Delon is playing Tom Ripley and the film is Purple Noon (Plein Soleil), René Clément’s 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. His Ripley is a hollow man, so void of morals and personality that he subsumes those around him whose lives he thinks are more desirable. He is need personified, a man so desperately empty that the entire film orbits around him, the black hole at the center of the galaxy. The film is nearly over by the time he pauses here to rest by the sea, and by now we have spent nearly two hours watching him lie, cheat, steal, and murder his way to something resembling bliss. But would you know it from his face? That beautiful, blank face?

In The Passion of Montgomery Clift, Amy Lawrence surveys film theory in an attempt to understand the near-religious adoration that fans have for that star. She interrogates Jean Epstein’s formative conception of photogénie, an elusive, indefinable, ineffable quality of the moving photographic image that he feels “excites [his] keenest responses.” Decades later, she finds Paul Willeman taking up the concept again, trying to define photogénie in relation to cinephilia. Lawrence is frustrated that Willeman considers and dismisses what she thinks to be the ultimate answer in a single sentence, when he writes: “As a cinephile, I could readily fetishize that it’s all about actors.”

I agree. It’s all about actors, and the scopophilic pleasures of looking at the human form, the human face, in closeup. Unlike photography and theater, the art forms it is most often compared to, cinema affords us an intimate relationship between spectator and actor in motion, full of life. The actor is opening their face up to be examined in ways denied to us even in real life, except in intimate situations with partners…although those inextricably carry with them an element of being looked at in return rather than simply looking. When we watch what Béla Balázs calls a “polyphonic play of features” playing out on an actor’s face in close-up—those silent moments where he says we can determine an entire narrative playing out internally by examining the micro-expressions and minute changes in an actor’s face—we are not being looked at in return; all that is asked of us is that we look. Alain Delon’s eyes, there on the beach, are closed.

What then, do we do with an actor like Alain Delon, who here offers no such polyphonic play of features for us to read? At the height of his fame in the 1960s, they called him “the French James Dean,” but it strikes me that the comparison couldn’t be more inaccurate, or more surface-level. Sure, both were young and beautiful, superficially similar in features, and the stardom of both spoke to something elemental about their generation. But: they had precisely opposite acting styles. Dean was known for his extraordinarily expressive face, his ability to contort those beautiful features into a thousand different emotions that flickered across his visage in the space of seconds, conveying the inchoate rage and aimless fear of a generation roiling beneath the surface. “I couldn’t remember ever having seen a young man with such power, so many facets of expression, so much sheer invention as an actor,” wrote gossip columnist Hedda Hopper about her astonishment the first time she witnessed James Dean acting, in East of Eden

No one would write such a thing about Alain Delon, certainly not about his performance in Purple Noon or in his other most famous role, as the titular character in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. In that film, his character is again emptied of inner thought, a chilling assassin so composed that he spends considerable time examining his reflection in the mirror, making sure he is perfectly expressionless.

And yet, Delon’s performances are magnetic—particularly in Purple Noon—perhaps because he lacks the typical elasticity we expect from movie stars. We are desperate to read his expression, to see what might be happening behind those impossibly green eyes. The intimacy of the close-up affords us an imagined psychological closeness with the star, an imagined ability to read their thoughts and in some way to know them in ways we barely know each other. We stare and stare, examining his every movement for clues, but Delon holds us at a remove, holds his face perfectly still, refusing to allow us into his thoughts. The unknowability of Delon’s interiority renders his external beauty almost ethereal, otherworldly, beatific. In refusing to allow us in, he asks that we just contemplate his form.

And we do. Darren Waldron calls this a form of narcissism, writing that Delon’s awareness of his own beauty is so great that it warps the films around him. He notes the moments in Purple Noon and in Jacques Deray’s 1969 film The Swimming Pool (La Piscine) where “the narrative flow is briefly suspended to afford a contemplation of his striking, sensual beauty,” such as the ending sequence where Ripley sunbathes, blissfully unaware that the noose is tightening around him and he is about to be caught. I would agree that there is certainly an element of narcissism here, and as Waldron makes clear, it is a narcissism that Delon himself played into, describing himself later as a “homme ideal.”

His beauty, though, also makes narrative sense in Purple Noon. It is because of his attractiveness that Tom Ripley is allowed into Philippe Greenleaf’s (changed from Dickie in the novel) inner circle; his beauty affords him a cover and allows everyone else to project their expectations onto him, to imagine that whatever they think they see reflected in his face is something worth keeping around. His beautiful blankness, in particular, heightens the chilling nature of the character. When he is caught dressing up in Philippe’s clothes and practicing his expressions and voice in the mirror, we are frightened not just by the character’s ease in putting on another person’s mannerisms, but by the still-alien way Delon portrays it, something essentially human missing from the way he stares at himself in the mirror, seeming to be overcome by lust at the sight of his own reflection.

Our desperation to read something into Delon’s impossibly-still face means that the expressions we do get, the few glimpses into the inner turmoil that he allows to break the surface, hit nearly as hard as James Dean’s anguished howl of “You’re tearing me apart!” After Ripley has killed Philippe Greenleaf and taken over his life through a combination of forgery and vocal mimicry, he is unable to shake the suspicions of Philippe’s friend Freddy Miles. 

One night, Freddy shows up unexpectedly at the hotel room Ripley is renting in Philippe’s name. Ripley tries to play him off, just friendly enough that his charm and beauty would work on most other people, though his eyes are still steely. Still, Freddy shoulders his way into the room, and for just a moment, Delon’s right eye goes wild, the muscles twitching out of control. And then it stops. But the mask has slipped, and the moment is as shocking and thrilling as a jump scare in a horror film. There is a monster underneath the homme ideal.

Let’s return one more time to the beach, to the sensual moment where Ripley pauses before taking a sip of his tequila, suspended before the pleasure, and before the pain he does not know is closing in. It is, perhaps, Ripley’s last moment of peace, or at least, what he understands peace to feel like to other people. Frozen in time as it is, this one frame of Purple Noon lets us contemplate the beautiful blankness of Alain Delon, blissfully detached from the pleasure and the pain.

There is a monster underneath this homme ideal, too, but we don’t have to know it yet. This is Delon at the height of his allure, before age and experience weathered his features. Here he is captured before the tabloid rumors of drunken rage, before the public accusations of domestic violence, before the late-in-life right-wing sympathizing. We don’t have to know about the homophobia that came later; he is here, in this moment, opening himself up as erotic object. He doesn’t get to decide who looks, because he isn’t looking back. He can’t.

And so we behold the movie star in repose, pausing to contemplate his beauty. Mere seconds later, the film ends. Our lives move on. We don’t see Ripley captured and are denied any change in his expression, any movement away from this unreadability. There is no guilt, or shame, or even fear. That ineffable quality that made Alain Delon a star, before all of the ugliness crept in, is suspended in this moment forever, in our memory always and indelibly empty, hollow, and blank.