Response to Plein Soleil from Jamie Bernthal

Jamie Bernthal is a PhD student in the Dept of English at the University of Exeter, he is researching queer theory and the detective fiction of Agatha Christie and he is currently organising the UK’s first academic conference devoted to Agatha Christie to be held at Exeter in April 2014.

After attending our Screen Talks event on Plein Soleil on Monday 4th November Jamie has written a guest blog post for us, reflecting on his responses to the film:


First of all, I must confess: I’ve never read The Talented Mr Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s novel on which Plein Soleil is based, and I haven’t seen any other dramatisation. I am, however, familiar with Highsmith’s prose, although the only other adaptation I’ve seen is Strangers on a Train. When I saw the book advertised in a Waterstones’ Cosy Crime display I felt personally affronted: cosy, indeed! Highsmith mastered the unsettling psychological thriller. And I certainly knew the clichés about Tom Ripley: a suave, sexually ambiguous serial-killer who never gets caught; the ultimate anti-hero. I came to see René Clément’s Plein Soleil because it is a famous film that I ought to have seen. It’s not what I was expecting.

The film is over half a century old, and as such relies on dialogue, direction, and acting for creation of suspense.  This evening, I’m going to see Gravity in 3D – the trailer had my heart racing and that’s nothing to do with Sandra Bullock’s lines; it’s the fact that she’s miles above the Earth and floating through space. Well, nothing like that in Plein Soleil. Not even so much as a fist fight. It’s more sophisticated, more personal.

I’ve always resisted Highsmith films because her skill as a writer lies in getting you inside an amoral or unconventional mind. You can’t do that with dialogue alone – or with flat, visual images, can you? Surely it’s about that slightly off-the-pivot angle from which protagonists view the world? The way they clutch at words – at moments in the conversation – and twist them and turn them, asking questions before we get back to dialogue and realise that none of what we’ve read was visible to anyone else.

Well, I was wrong! We don’t stay inside the mind of Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) – of course not – that would be impossible. But we go along with it. And that is more intoxicating, more unsettling. You know he’s going to kill his friend, Phillipe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) eventually – partly because he is Mr Ripley, and partly because of the very strange jokes he and Greenleaf make, again and again as their boat sails further and further out to sea, about how convenient a murder would be.

About half-way through, Ripley prepares to receive a police officer who is going to inform him of another friend’s death. Ripley has just killed this friend (footstep, footstep, footstep, as he raised the weapon…). He has been impersonating Greenleaf in order to get hold of money, and is still wearing Greenleaf’s shirt. Painstakingly covering small traces of his deception, he forgets the clothes. At this point, my fiancé turned to me and said: ‘Is it bad that I want him to get away with it?’

That’s the thing, isn’t it? The film is full of sunshine and the vibrancy of night shadows; it draws you in. The cast is beautiful. Delon has this kind of magnetic beauty that makes you want to watch him and learn all about him, and the same kind of youth as James Dean. That everything he said was a little off-kilter, a little wide of the narrow mark of social niceties, made his character and his world the more entrancing.

In fact, a young couple had an argument on the way out of the cinema. The man was trying to justify to his girlfriend why he hadn’t noticed what the women were wearing. ‘I was engrossed in Tom Ripley – he was so beautiful.’ That’s everything you want from a serial killer. Nothing so vulgar as Dexter. You don’t know Ripley; that’s the point.

The end of the film – where everything culminates – really summarised to me Plein Soleil’s hypnotic allure. When, in the final few minutes, Greenleaf’s body appears out of nowhere, somebody near me in the auditorium gasped! It didn’t seem any more ridiculous or implausible or anticlimactic than the rest of the film. When the police called Tom Ripley over and he contentedly walked towards them, suspecting nothing amiss, it worked. Then: Fin. That was it. A man who’d wriggled out of every incrimination wasn’t even given the chance to get out of this one.

Of course, the book ends differently: the talented Mr Ripley is the most infamous unpunished serial killer after Jack the Ripper. While Highsmith admired Plein Soleil, she described its conclusion as a ‘terrible concession to so-called public morality.’ Endings in films were often changed, as we know, to avoid censorship and public outrage, but the ending of this one, though excellently pulled off, undermined the slickly twisted morality of the preceding two hours.

The dramatic irony running through the film, so integral to its conclusion, is something Dr Sam North pointed out in his lively, engaging introduction to the evening. As one of Sam’s MA students in 2011, I loved his lecture style. His talk reminded me how much I missed it. By giving us moments to pay special attention to – ‘watch out for the earring, and think about when it will reappear’ – Sam added extra layers of suspense, dramatic irony, and expectation. I found myself anticipating the detail that would get me anticipating further details.

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