For the great Alain Delon’s birthday
FIRST UP: the lengthy (understatement) piece I wrote for Oscilloscope’s “Musings” blog, a piece years in the making (old-timers will remember the birth of the idea here on my site): on scenes in movies where men stare at themselves in the mirror. This “trope” goes back almost to cinema’s beginnings. Alain Delon has one of my favorite “staring at himself in the mirror” moments in Purple Noon, and I included a discussion in it of my piece.
Here’s a piece I wrote about Delon’s beauty
There are so many things I love about Le Cercle Rouge: its deep dark colors, and velvety-black shadows, its serious somber mood, its emotional (and factual) withholding, its “stealing” of the 30-minute totally wordless heist sequence of Rafifi.
The three guys: Yves Montand, Alain Delon, and Gian Maria Volontè: competent, chilly, driven by forces within them not explained. Maybe it’s society. Maybe it’s prison time. Yves Montand’s “Jansen” is given the clearest example of what his life is like, and what drives him to do what he does (the “beasts” of his delirium tremens.) There are women in the story but they are mainly irrelevant. The heist is magnificent. We are not allowed to witness the planning stages. We know they want to “hit” the jewelry store, and we watch Yves Montand stake it out, but we do not know what he sees. Later: we understand.
There is a pared-down acting going on, un-self-congratulatory, un-interested in pleading for sympathy, un-interested in “presentation” at all. And yet there is sympathy everywhere: The police chief with his three cats and nightly routine of running a bath. Yves Montand in his room with that HORRIBLE wallpaper and the “beasts”. Alain Delon’s understanding – etched into his face – that he has no life outside of crime. And, more complicatedly: the heist itself, so breathtaking, so elaborate, so dazzling, … it takes up so much of the film you are automatically on their side. You WANT them to pull it off.
I am interested in Alain Delon and how he does what he does. I have been thinking about it for some time and have written a lot about him. There is something there to be discussed … grappled with … especially in regards to his intimidating chilly beauty and his obvious awareness of it. His beauty is an accident of genetics. He somehow seems to feel he has nothing to do with it. (As indeed he doesn’t.) He never ever preens as an actor. He doesn’t need to. He suns himself by the pool in La Piscine and he’s so beautiful it’s almost off-putting. Beauty beckons but it also discourages. His is not a warm or inviting kind of beauty. He is aware of what he looks like, and his awareness is certainly in operation in his performances, but he is not self-conscious about it. He’s beyond that.
Maybe his strongest asset as an actor is that it’s immaterial to him whether or not you love him. He won’t work for your love. He couldn’t care less about you. You are irrelevant to him.
Beneath the beauty there is a … pit of unknowability. He is almost entirely opaque. His eyes are light and icy-blue, and yet they give an impression of pitch-black-ness. He communes with something inside of him: disappointment? Anger? Loss? Disillusionment? The eyes tell no tales. Ever. The mystery remains intact. Always. This is what makes him a great movie star. On the level of Dietrich. Or Cary Grant. Two other insanely gorgeous almost otherworldly creatures who managed to be both transparent and entirely mysterious at the same time. Persona as strip-tease, where the ultimate reveal STILL withholds something essential.
Everyone has an inner life. It shows on our faces, in our gestures, in our hesitations, in the thoughts that flicker through our eyes. Alain Delon’s characters have inner lives. But the glimpses we get of it – in Le Cercle Rouge, in Purple Noon, in Le Samourai – make us recoil, rather than draw nearer. What he shows us is never explicit. It’s never sentimental (“Here is the inner pain I am managing.”), it’s never offered by way of explanation (“See? This is what I am dealing with.”) It’s more a feeling, a sense. (I wrote another lengthy piece, this time a piece of “character” analysis – in quotes because there really IS no “character” and that’s the point – of Jef in Le Samourai, only possible because of Alain Delon’s … not depth, so much as … nothingness.)
There’s the beauty, right? Beauty seduces. We are moths to flame. With someone like, say, Marilyn Monroe … the beauty is a soft whispering entreaty to stay close, to admire, to love, to protect. Her beauty was very profound (and rare) in that way. The same was true of Elvis, who was so intimidatingly gorgeous in person that people HAD to address it, sometimes blurting out, “My God, you are a good-looking man” right to his face. It wasn’t just women who felt it. Men were in thrall to it too. But, like Monroe, Elvis’ beauty gleamed, emanating from an inner spotlight, and people clustered around him hoping the light would shine on them. Maybe something of his charisma would rub off.
But Delon’s beauty has a forbidding quality.
It says “Stay away” at the same time it says, “Come closer.” It’s like a star exploding light years away and we are just now receiving its messages. Messages we don’t really want to hear.
Delon did not always play chilly sociopaths, but smart directors understood that this forbidding quality was his ace in the hole. There was something criminal about it. His beauty was indistinguishable from his amorality. The beauty was not illuminated by the inner spirit and soul. The beauty covered a blank void (I have written about this “blank”-ness ad nauseum). Delon is hard-to-reach (as in: on the other side of the galaxy hard-to-reach).
There’s a disconnect between the matinee-idol looks and the inner life, and the disconnect does not appear to be a conscious acting choice, or anything manipulated by Delon, but an organic expression of his natural temperament.
This is another reason why Alain Delon is a Great Movie Star. His persona is pleasing, but it is also destabilizing. Things don’t add up. You can’t get to the core of it. There are gaps. The center is elusive. You cannot find the bottom.
Maybe there is no bottom.
And that’s why people who get too close take one look at him, and draw back, alarmed.
Even though he comes off as remote and unreachable, it is not because he is focused on himself. He does not emanate egotism or garden-variety narcissism. You don’t know WHAT he’s focused on. Maybe it’s something existential (he is French, after all) or maybe it’s some deep psychic wound from before memory even existed.
Or maybe he’s not “focused” on anything at all, and that’s why we can’t look away, that’s why we draw closer to him, because what is it like to be focused on nothing, nothing at all?
What is it LIKE in there, behind those icy eyes?