Original release: March 10th, treatment 1960
Running time: 115 minutes
Country of origin: France
Original language: French
Director: René Clément
Writers: Patricia Highsmith, René Clément, Paul Gégauff
Composers: Nino Rota
Cast: Alain Delon, Maurice Ronet, Marie Laforêt
Have you ever wanted to be someone else? Maybe it starts off as admiration, but gradually envy steps into the picture too. Even a kind of perverse, repressed sexual longing, with a tinge of self-hatred, mixed in with those deep-set insecurities about one’s self can fuel it even further.
However it comes about, this loss of our own identities as we try to trade them in for a better one can only lead to disaster, either immediately or further along the way. I remember when I was in high school I had all of those feelings, and they were directed towards a star football player a couple of years ahead of me. This infatuation became an obsession that lasted up until I went off to college, but during that time I did everything I could think of to be less like me and more like him.
The lies I made up as I weaselled my way into his life, the way I started to style my hair and ho I threw my coat over one shoulder as I walked down the school corridors to get to class, it must’ve been so obvious. Once I even stole one of his books so I could copy his handwriting… In trying to be more like him, I’ve often wondered in the years since then if I actually ended up more like Tom Ripley.
Having seen Plein Soleil on television late one night during that time, the film made an odd impression on me. It made me uncomfortable and I remember the feeling of not wanting to be like Tom at all, but still, I couldn’t help myself, and neither could he. Played by Alain Delon, in his first major role, Tom is persuaded by the wealthy father of playboy Phillippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) to go to Italy and try to get him to come back home to run the family business.
When Tom arrives in Italy and succeeds in weaselling his way into Phillippe’s life, he finds out two things. The first is that his new friend has no desire to return home and do anything that can even be remotely viewed as working for a living. The second is that impoverished Tom now likes this luxurious lifestyle Phillippe has introduced him to. The pair spend all day doing nothing but wasting away Phillippe’s father’s money and carousing at night, despite Phillippe having a loyal girlfriend, Marge (Marie Laforêt).
Eventually Phillippe becomes bored of Tom’s company and starts to act cruelly towards him. The final straw is when, during a yachting trip, Philippe maroons Tom in a dinghy and leaves him to lie in the sun for hours. After this incident, Tom begins to plot his rich friend’s demise and to steal his identity. It’s an intricate plot that also involves driving Marge away so she won’t suspect foul play.
I guess I should be thankful that the object of my obsession wasn’t rich and that I never managed to get that close to him for him to act as cruelly towards me as Phillippe does to Tom. However, I’ve never had any homicidal urges, or any desire for riches, so I highly doubt I might’ve hatched a dastardly plan the way Tom does in order to become Phillippe if he couldn’t actually be with him. In a way I wanted Tom to succeed, to get away with what he did to Phillippe but as we’re often told in films from this time, moral balance must be restored and justice always trumps crime, so what we see by the end is that he never really had any chance of getting away with any of it. This is what gives Plein Soleil its tragic edge, enforced by the idea that someone who’s so beautiful anyway would try to be someone else.
The film carries with it a palpable amount of tension that steadily builds as it nears the end. Philippe’s suspicious friend, Freddie Miles (Billy Kearns), comes very close to unravelling the truth, and while Tom continues playing his charade, perfectly mimicking Phillippe’s voice and mannerisms, he keeps having to switch back and forth between his two identities. Delon’s portrayal of him is what makes this film so riveting, so memorable, and for someone like me, so uncomfortable because I saw similar traits within myself at the time that no doubt troubled me.
Despite the uncomfortable feelings I first had, Plein Soleil is still a remarkable film. The cinematography is gorgeous and each scene is expertly shot, especially the scenes on board the yacht. The score is understated at times and there are moments when Clément just lets the sound of the wind create the atmosphere he needs to help drive the scene. It’s great to come back it again some 20 years after first watching it. I’m now able to put any similarities between myself and Tom down to adolescent awkwardness and nothing else.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .