French men have a distinctive attitude. I spent the month of October travelling through France and I had some time to get to know a couple of them and observe countless others. They generally have great hair and flair with a scarf. They have a confidence that is charming rather than alarming. In Paris, in particular, almost every French man I saw at a café or in the gardens was reading a book. And it never looked like a pose. Not even when it was Sartre. They smoked a lot and drank their coffee black, their wine red. They sat comfortably alone, or talked in pairs or small groups with quiet intensity. Whatever made them appealing didn’t scream for attention. It was cool, controlled and still. Sure of itself. In public places I had a sense of their inner lives. And yet they also looked outward. Great flirts. Many smiled at me, looking me in the eyes, directly, confident in their allure and daring me to feel confident in mine.
It’s a cliché to say it, but there is something about French men.
And there has always been something about French actors.
In Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic film, Le Samouraï (1967), Alain Delon’s contract killer, Jef Costello, seems to permanently wear this cool, self-assured look. He’s a lone warrior, a killer in white gloves – the very embodiment of Spartan poise. He has an attitude – both very French and very noir – that requires certain skills of communication. In that fedora and pale trench coat, saying little but doing much, Delon has what David Thomson rightly calls ‘an astonishing presence.’ It’s in his eyes. It’s in something controlled but simmering with intensity, that star quality, that can’t quite be defined. And it’s this role, for all its minimalism and muted tones, which defines the career of the highest paid French actor of his time, and certainly one of cinema’s most handsome men.
Delon – very much still living and breathing – was born in the southern suburbs of Paris in 1935.
My first encounter with Delon wasn’t through film but through music. He is the ‘cover star’ of The Smiths brilliant album The Queen is Dead. Here he is captured reclining, languorous and gorgeous in a still from the final moments of L’Insoumis (1964); a very French image for a very British album.
But of course I could see where Morrissey (who handpicked all the band’s cover images) was coming from. At the height of his beauty, Delon had more than a little of James Dean about him. His face was distinctly soft, with fine, ‘feminine’ features, almost a little feline. His wasn’t a ruggedly handsome face, but a delicately beautiful one. And yet he was a sex symbol – not just a pretty face, but also a figure of desire, a masculine ideal in European cinema. And this masculine ideal is open, fluid and confident enough to be inconsistent. Delon is warm and cool, tough and vulnerable, virile and passive. His face and star appeal seem to me an exercise in contradictions.
Delon’s dual personas were put to good advantage in a series of exceptional roles. He’s the tough, bruised and loyal Rocco in Luchino Visconti’s neo-realist masterpiece, Rocco and His Brothers (1960). He’s the romantic and feckless Piero in the starkly beautiful L’Eclisse (1962, Michelangelo Antonioni). And he’s elegant and callow as the young aristocrat, Tancredi Falconeri, for Visconti again, in Il Gattopardo (1963).
But it’s his first major film role (and I think the first film I actually ever saw him in) where Delon’s appeal really makes sense to me. In Purple Noon (1960, René Clément), Delon plays Tom Ripley, a young man who wants his friend Philippe Greenleaf’s life and sets about to literally take it and claim it as his own. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr Ripley, Purple Noon gave us Delon at his most beautiful, painfully so. Almost fetishistic, the camera seems obsessed with the smooth contours of his flesh.
But that’s just the surface of things – glittering and gorgeous like the blue-green depths of the Mediterranean Sea (the same colour as Delon’s eyes, incidentally) around which much of the film’s action takes place. Under that golden skin, Delon gives Ripley a simmering complexity. He’s one of those endlessly intriguing characters – psychologically and sexually – and he’s made all the more so by Delon’s characterisation, which is always mesmerizing to watch.
And this is where Tom Ripley and Jef Costello meet. Both are icy, controlled and seemingly detached, but with fire and passion burning just under the surface. And I think that’s Alain Delon. He’s quintessentially French – very cool but always generating maximum heat.