Newly restored for 4K digital projection, René Clément’s 1960 thriller Plein Soleil has aged well. With its bold Mediterranean colours and deviously charismatic central performance by Alain Delon, it feels as raw, gripping and cool today as Clément must have originally intended. The film, which is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (which Anthony Minghella adapted with Matt Damon in 1999) also possesses a lifelike moral ambiguity, often missing in overly literal literary adaptations.
Plein Soleil tells the story of Highsmith’s recurring American protagonist Tom Ripley. At the beginning of the film he is sent to Italy to encourage his friend Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) to return to the US, so he can acquire his father’s company. After a breezy and humorous opening that establishes the pair’s roguish friendship as they buy a blind man’s walking stick, the film takes a sinister turn; Ripley develops an infatuation with Greenleaf’s long suffering and attractive girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforêt), initiating a chaotic sequence of events in which friendship counts for nothing.
Set partly on Greenleaf’s yatch the film plays like a precursor to Roman Polanski’s excellent 1962 drama Knife In The Water. Highsmith’s tense love triangle is filmed within the yatch with a flexible, innovative and claustrophic camera style. Clément achieved this by craning the roving camera into the moving set, which rocked back and forth, creating the illusion of waves. While Polanski’s film was a fierce political and social critique, probing issues of class, gender and age, Clément’s film is more concerned with the singular mania of its central character and Delon’s (undeniably French) Ripley is sufficiently gripping.
Clément proves himself as inspired a director above deck, as well as he is below, allowing for some brilliant physical acting from Delon. In the film’s most thrilling scene Tom Ripley navigates genuinely choppy waters in Greenleaf’s yatch whilst dodging the boat’s precarious, windswept boom. When Plein Soleil returns to land however, it feels no less treacherous, as Ripley navigates a dubious set of circumstances that only he can claim responsibility for.
While not as heavily existential as Wim Wenders’ Highsmith adaptation The American Friend (adapted in 1977 from her 1974 novel Ripley’s Game), Plein Soleil does possess an indeterminate morality that feels authentically drawn from its source material. As we witness Ripley’s perilously unethical decision making, Clément’s camera refrains from moralising judgement. Perhaps this unsettling indifference was the veteran director’s contribution to the then developing French New Wave; Plein Soleil is a slick, important film well worth revisiting.