Alain Delon: Eyes So Deep There’s No Bottom

For the great Alain Delon’s birthday


Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge”

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.

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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.)

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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).

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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?

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13 Responses to Alain Delon: Eyes So Deep There’s No Bottom

  1. Lyrie says:

    //Maybe it’s something existential and French//
    “Is there any cheese left?” “Do I want to drink a Bordeaux or a Gaillac?” “I can’t speak English and je m’en fous because je suis français.”

    All your talk with Helena the other day convinced me. I went to the library and got Rocco et ses frères, L’éclisse and Purple Noon.

    • sheila says:

      Lyrie – “Is there any cheese left?” hahaha Maybe French and existential are redundant – at least where Delon is concerned.

      And I’m so excited you are about to “meet” Alain Delon!! Those three films give a great sense of his range – like Helena says below.

      And L’Eclisse is a damn masterpiece. That one really is “who can love another in a world where there is The Bomb” – it came out in 1962, same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis. So it’s filled with that hopelessness/fatalism. But I love how active he is in that one. Or … extroverted, is a better word. The stock exchange scenes are just incredible.

      Make sure you see Le Samourai, eventually. That’s my favorite Delon.

      Report back! No pressure!

  2. Helena says:

    //All your talk with Helena the other day convinced me. I went to the library and got Rocco et ses frères, L’éclisse and Purple Noon.//

    Have you watched them yet?

    Such different films and roles (ah, the sixties). Big range, dead-eyed-angel thing notwithstanding.

    • Lyrie says:

      Not yet! I will report back.:)

    • sheila says:

      I love how in La Piscine, he’s a bit impotent in terms of taking action – he’s passive as opposed to active (at first) … as well as maybe somewhat dissipated, shuffling out to the patio in his sandals and his robe … sunning by the pool … but then look what that character is capable of. It’s so chilling.

      And he’s hard to handle or nail down- he’s a genius, really. He’s not just a dead-eyed angel – Le Samourai is the farthest he went in that direction (and basically set the bar for actors attempting characters like that) – He’s quite desperate in Purple Noon, clawing for survival – improvising along the way – eyes flitting around looking for escape.

      I love the sequence in Purple Noon when he forges the passport, and learns to copy someone else’s handwriting. He’s so focused.

  3. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Sheila, no one (in English or French) that I’ve ever read has come close to capturing what you do about him. Amazing thoughts, great writing.

    • sheila says:

      Thank you so much – he is just so difficult to talk about – unlike anybody else I can think of. He may very well be the most mysterious of movie stars as well as the most beautiful and I am still contemplating why that is, and how that is.

      But thank you – I’ll try to re-visit it again – I’ve been re-watching his films over the past couple of months.

  4. Lawry says:

    Can you describe his features? Face shape and such

  5. Michael Fleming says:

    Sheila
    I don’t know if you see old posts but I wanted to thank you for all you have gifted me . Eaven Boland, Anne Reinking , Alain Delon, just to mention a few. I have over 300 poetry books in the various platforms but I didn’t think at the age of 70 someone would break my heart as easily as Eaven Boland did. La Piscine Alain and Romy are my favourite couple I never tire of watching them. When I was growing up in Grafton around the corner from my house on widows row lived an old Irish woman called Sheila O’Malley a larger than life earth mother type but that vastness must come with the name

  6. Temple Franco says:

    I stumbled upon Alain Delon whilst perusing vintage photographs of Brigitte Bardot in Cannes – he was walking with her. I was thoroughly captivated and couldn’t look away, thus began my obsessive deep dive into this alluring and mysteriously beautiful man – dare I say a true “Alpha Male.” I’ve searched for his movies (with English subtitles) and have only found a few – why they aren’t more accessible in the US is bewildering. Further, I’m determined to learn French just so that I can read his May, 2023 autobiography “Amours et Memoires.” I can only hope that it will be released on Kindle to translate – or, better yet, that it will be published in English.

    I found that your article was the most in-depth and concise piece that I’ve ever read. I so enjoyed reading it and was impressed with your insight and professionalism. I have seen a few unkind articles about him, much speculation and hearsay…personally, I respect that he’s unapologetic regarding his beliefs and stands by his statements – his personal and professional lives are equally as interesting to me.

    You were deeply thoughtful in your article and since I had just completed Le Samourai, it was fresh in my mind and you provided a plethora of scenes to reflect upon. Jef was fascinating and though he might have appeared to be one dimensional, I could clearly see the face behind the face, the complexity was astounding. For me to feel compassion and loyalty to what amounts to be a ruthless Killer, is quite a feat for an actor to pull off, he captured Jef perfectly.

    I wish I would have discovered Alain Delon 40 years ago, and I find that I love him at every age…he wears it well.

  7. Nena says:

    I just wanted to say you write beautifully. I’m a big fan of both Delon and Elvis, and you described their differences perfectly. You wrote down what I have always felt when I looked at Delon but could not describe myself.

  8. Johnny says:

    Hey Sheila, I am somewhat late to the Delon train. I want to start of by saying that Alain is still gaining new fans worlwide and is a topic of discussion in all the beauty forums. All of this has led me to think as to why that is. I believe that part of his appeal is the fact that in comparison to his contemporaries, he might be the only one that is so timeless and modern. There are moments in Purple Noon in which if you didn’t know any better, you would think you would be staring at a man from NOW. Some of this is due to his sense of style, especially his hair but most importantly his face. His face looks like it belongs in the now. I can’t think of anyone that has that. Maybe James Dean? But nobody comes close to his timeless appeal.

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