Alain Delon at his very best: Ravishing, yes, but also destabilizing

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Alain Delon at his very best: Ravishing, yes, but also destabilizing
In an image provided by the cinema, Alain Delon in “Cercle Rouge.” The French star is the subject of a series at Film Forum focusing on movies from the ’60s and ’70s, when he became an international sensation. (Film Forum via The New York Times)

by Manohla Dargis

NEW YORK, NY.- When Luchino Visconti first saw Alain Delon, he is said to have cried out, “It’s him!” Visconti had found his Rocco, the tragic, tender soul of his next film, the 1960 family drama “Rocco and His Brothers.” One of the founders of Italian neorealism, Visconti apparently didn’t bother introducing himself to the young French actor. Perhaps he was tending to the tears that I like to think fell from his eyes when he saw his future star. I like to think that’s how everyone reacts when they initially see Delon, whose beauty has long inspired paroxysms of rapture.

This is, after all, a star whose looks over the years have been described as sensual though also insolent, cruel, self-absorbed and androgynous, a word that helps explain why his beauty — as with that of other men whose looks threaten tidy gender norms — makes some viewers uneasy even as it sends others into ecstasy. (“My mother had to put a sign on my pram,” Delon once said, ‘You can look, but you can’t touch!’”) You may want to break out your thesaurus to find your own mot juste to describe Delon, now 88: A selective series that includes “Rocco” and 10 of his other films (he’s made scores more), opens Friday in New York at Film Forum.

Born in 1935, Delon had a rough early life by all accounts. After his parents divorced when he was young, he was placed with a foster family and later sent to boarding school. By 17, he was in the military and France’s war in Indochina. A providential trip to Cannes with some friends in 1957 soon found him in the sights of a talent scout working for Hollywood producer David Selznick, who wanted to sign the actor to a contract but also work on his English. Delon instead stayed in France, kick-starting a prolific career that rapidly gathered momentum. By the end of the 1950s, he had become known as the French James Dean.

You understand why when you dip into the series, which includes some of Delon’s most famous films and a few oddities, all culled from the 1960s and ’70s, when he became a huge star at home and then an international sensation. His breakout came when he played the sly, sinister Tom Ripley in “Purple Noon” (1960), a French thriller adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and directed by Réne Clément. Much of the film’s appeal rests with Delon, a hypnotic, destabilizing presence whose stardom was sealed the moment Ripley peels off his shirt, baring his chest. He repeats this bit of striptease after committing his first murder, a distillation of Delon’s startling violent eroticism.

When I first saw “Purple Noon,” I was more startled that he could move his face. I’m exaggerating, but I’d first become acquainted with Delon’s work and ravishing beauty — the eerie blue eyes, the slash of dark hair, the cheekbones that looked as if they'd been sliced with a knife — in the thrillers he made with French director Jean-Pierre Melville, including the 1967 dazzler “Le Samouraï.” (Film Forum is showing it in conjunction with the series.) In it, Delon plays a professional killer, Jef, a chilling number in a belted trench coat and rakish fedora who, after carrying out a hit at a nightclub, makes a conspicuous exit that’s witnessed by several others, most notably a pianist (Cathy Rosier).

The story follows Jef as he’s squeezed between the people who hired him and the police, and for most of that time, Jef remains a visually distant figure — often seen in medium and long shot — and his face an inscrutable mask. Late in the film, though, he returns to the nightclub where he sees Cathy, and Melville frames him in close-up. By that point, Jef has removed his fedora, which makes him seem vulnerable, as if he had shed his armor. His face remains masklike, yet as Melville cuts between Cathy and Jef, Delon begins to rapidly move his eyes back and forth like the pendulum on a clock. It’s as if Jef’s shifting through his choices and also admitting what we already know: Tick, tick, tick, time is running out.

Delon could go big and expansively expressive, at times superbly. He laughs and weeps in “Rocco,” tearing your heart to shreds as the sensitive brother in a family displaced by the modern world in postwar Italy. He’s equally comfortable playing against men as women, as he shows in two very different 1963 films: Henri Verneuil’s “Any Number Can Win,” a fizzy caper very much in a French vein in which he stars alongside Jean Gabin, and Visconti’s magnificent period epic, “The Leopard,” in which Delon plays opposite — and is, understandably, outacted and overshadowed by — a powerful Burt Lancaster.

Delon is flat-out terrific in Joseph Losey’s “Mr. Klein,” a 1976 World War II mystery in which he’s a wealthy art dealer whose life slowly comes undone when he’s mistaken for a Jewish man with the same name. He’s also very good in Jacques Deray’s “La Piscine” (1969), a tight, nasty piece of work about bored bourgeois types whose torpor is broken by murder.

I recommend stopping by your local dispensary before seeing Jack Cardiff’s jaw-droppingly terrible “The Girl on a Motorcycle.” Delon plays a professor — he wears glasses and waves around a pipe — and one of the two lovers whom Marianne Faithfull’s title character zooms around while laughing wildly in black leather. She was probably thinking about the scene in which she and Delon lounge naked, a bouquet of red roses rising over his crotch like a flowery erection.

Well, he was an idol of cinema. Idols, though, can crumble and fall, and I keep thinking about how, early in his career, Delon was repeatedly likened to Dean, a comparison that was probably dreamed up by a flack looking for an easy way to publicize a client. Delon and Dean are very different, of course, including in their performance styles and screen presence, but there are moments — when the lighting and angle are just so and the camera lingers on their faces — when each man’s looks create a strange disturbance in the air. They don’t simply attract your attention, they command and trouble your gaze, at times while also drawing attention away from other performers and the movie itself.

For much of his career, which has had more peaks and some wincing lows, Delon generated equally excited attention for his off-screen life, which was pockmarked by rumors, scandals and sometimes great outrage. He was questioned in the 1968 murder of Stefan Markovic. That scandal faded, yet more followed. Delon has admitted to slapping a woman, expressed homophobic views and voiced support for France’s far-right party, all of which generated protest and headlines in 2019 when the Cannes Film Festival announced that it would give him a lifetime achievement award. The festival ignored its critics; Delon took home his prize.

Recently, news outlets reported that Delon, who’s in poor health and whose children have been squabbling in public about his care, was placed under legal guardianship. On-screen, actors exist in a kind of bewitching state of suspended animation, their youth and beauty eternally fixed. Dean’s accidental death at 24 in 1955 rendered him forever young off-screen. Delon, of course, lived. He continued to work, to star and produce, to seduce and charm until he didn’t, and his gradual, increasingly agonizingly painful fade-out began. Unlike Dean, who in dying young escaped the mistakes and indignities that older age might have brought him, Delon continued to prove that despite all of our rapture, he was all too human.

DelonThrough April 18 at Film Forum, 209 West Houston St., Greenwich Village,

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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