Anyone interested in discovering the works of Alain Delon on DVD would do well to start with “Purple Noon,” “Rocco and His Brothers,” “L’Eclisse,” “The Leopard” and “Le Samourai” — pics that paired the French dreamboat with Europe’s top auteurs. But Delon made a lot of movies, not all of them masterpieces, and the five selections included in Lionsgate’s new three-disc collection offer a logical next step for anyone obsessed with the singularly handsome and disarmingly serious star. Landing squarely on the guilty-pleasure end of the spectrum, these pics rewind to a time when French cinema was at its most chic.
Enormously popular in his day, Delon remains largely undiscovered by younger viewers, and the assortment contained within this box set reveals surprising range for the pretty-boy screen idol. Covering a span of some 17 years but concentrated around the late-’60s/early-’70s peak of his popularity, the films find Delon as a lover (“Swimming Pool”) and a fighter (“The Widow Couderc”), playing a brainwashed millionaire one moment (“Diabolically Yours”) and an eyes-wide-open social outcast the next (“The Gypsy”). The outlier 1984’s “Our Story” ranks among the most depressing comedies ever made, but is noteworthy in that it earned Delon his only Cesar (France’s equivalent to the Oscar).
In each of these performances, Delon brought something more than mannequin good looks to the part. Though he never demonstrated the control of his “instrument” embodied by the great American Method actors of the time (to the extent that his physical presence was often rather wooden), Delon projected a sadness behind those baby blues that could raise existential questions from even the shallowest exploitation premise.
Take 1967 eye-roller “Diabolically Yours,” in which Delon plays a car crash survivor duped into believing he’s married to black-widow beauty Senta Berger. The film marks a clunky embarrassment for “Pepe le Moko” director Julien Duvivier (who, as irony would have it, suffered a fatal auto accident three months before its release) and features some of the most outrageous subliminal suggestion since “The Manchurian Candidate” (but whereas the gimmick works in that great pic, here we get Delon thrashing in bed as his tormentors needle him toward suicide). The character’s fate may seem preordained, but there’s a certain mischief in his look that sells the pic’s sexy twist.
In Jacques Deray’s “The Swimming Pool” (1969), Delon plays a character with genuine suicide issues and a body to die for. Lounging poolside with lover Romy Schneider, the failed novelist finds his reverie interrupted by rival Maurice Ronet (who played the Greenleaf to Delon’s Ripley in the equally steamy “Purple Noon”). “Swimming Pool” is all subtext and sun-baked sexual ennui as the quartet, which include a nubile young Jane Birkin as Ronet’s barely legal daughter, engage in petty power games until one of the shallow hedonists inevitably ends up floating face-down in the pool. Only then does Delon’s character take shape, as a man who days earlier had nothing left to lose finds himself grasping onto what little life he has left.
One of the things that makes these films so “French” is the fact that nearly every ending is compromised in some way — the resolutions are not necessarily happy, but always poetic. Whether the leading man lives or dies, he loses (with one surprising exception not to be spoiled here), and Delon embodies the nihilism such an approach requires. His characters seem unafraid of death, almost resigned to it, yet they lead lives governed not by hedonism but a strict code of conduct (a notion pushed to its most extreme in Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai,” not included in this set but easily the actor’s best performance).
That bulletproof quality — which earned the actor his ultra-cool reputation — proves most interesting when Delon plays criminals, as in “The Widow Couderc” (1971), a pic that takes place in a small countryside town circa 1934 and features Delon as a handsome drifter who shacks up with the great Simone Signoret (“Room at the Top”). Lonely after the death of her husband and beleaguered by her in-laws, the older woman opens herself up to this mysterious stranger, whose murderous past isn’t his only secret. While staying under the widow’s roof, first in her attic and eventually sharing her bed, he succumbs to the batted lashes and bare breasts of a flirtatious local girl. Working from a novel by Georges Simenon, director Pierre Granier-Deferre clearly shares the writer’s attention to atmosphere and psychology (the film marks one of four Simenon books he would adapt for the screen), and the tragedy occurs not in the film’s derivative finale but along the way: While his self-reliant host washes his pants in the canal, impervious to the sideways glances of suspicious neighbors, Delon indulges a roll in the hay with the young seductress.
Though not as overtly artistic, “The Gypsy” (1975) similarly makes Delon’s rule-breaker more righteous than the police who pursue him. Directed by Jose Giovanni, whose own criminal record often translated into convincing and, not surprisingly, sympathetic tales of the underworld, the film centers around a character with two strikes against him: He robs banks and belongs to the underclass of nomadic gypsies harassed by European authorities. Giovanni alternates rather inelegantly between the two spheres, couching social commentary about the gypsy condition amid a rather routine policier, but Delon supplies the necessary gravitas to win audiences over to his character’s cause. As always in Giovanni-penned material, there is honor among thieves, while it is the police who cross the line (an undercover inspector assigned to press information from a gangster’s wife ends up falling for her instead).
The final film in the set jumps forward a decade and cements Delon’s power as an actor. In those earlier pics, he trades largely on his looks, but in 1984’s “Our Story” (alternately known as “Separate Rooms”), he plays a man who has hit rock bottom. During his ’60s heyday, Delon’s hunky glamour and sexual energy could, at times, upstage even his supermodel co-stars, but here, his character is defined by the alcoholic stupor through which he experiences the world. Traveling by train with his entire savings stashed in his suitcase, he makes love to a willing stranger (Nathalie Baye) but refuses to let the relationship die at the station, leveraging his small fortune for a place in her life — or, more accurately, for entry into some parallel universe where personas meld, lovers are interchangeable and beer is the only constant currency. Surreal and frequently confounding, this relationship study from provocateur Bertrand Blier is, like the other films in this set, a peculiar gem plucked from half-forgotten obscurity by virtue of Delon’s involvement.
These are hardly Delon’s finest films, but it’s a coup that cinephiles have access to them at all. That blessing results from Lionsgate’s deal with Studio Canal, which gave the U.S. distrib access to the French company’s 2,000-plus film library (they released a package of ’80s Godard films earlier this year and have “Celebrity Series” sets planned for Catherine Deneuve and Sophia Loren this summer). Clearly, categorizing by director or star marks the easiest way to divide up that formidable catalog, and each new release offers cinephiles enormous potential for discovery (for the five directors represented in the Delon set, few if any films were previously available on Region 1 DVD). The transfers are much better than consumers have been conditioned to expect from bargain-priced multifilm collections, although the subtitles take considerable liberty with the original French dialogue and the entire package is sorely lacking in contextual information — something a short featurette or booklet on Delon’s career would have gone a long way to correct.