The Talented Mr.Ripley

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    The salient virtues of Anthony Minghella's film are those of a Vogue layout. The people are pretty and the clothes even more so; it is a world of creamy linens, tight waists, billowing skirts and soft leathers. One of the movie's best touches is that Ripley's standard-issue corduroy jacket, the kind you still see at prep-school graduations, looks almost grotesquely crude next to the soigne elegance that surrounds him. Then there's the scenery: Rome, the Spanish Steps, Capitoline Hill and Piazza Navona; the beaches of San Remo and fictional Mongibello (played by Ischia); the canals and decaying palazzi of Venice. As a visual vacation, The Talented Mr. Ripley couldn't be more tastefully appointed.

    But we want movies to be more than postcards and fashion ads, and in its human and narrative elements the film largely fails to rise to the occasion provided by Roy Walker's production design and John Seale's photography. While Minghella would like the film to exercise the fraught fascinations of a Hitchcock suspenser, his skills (as both screenwriter and director) aren't up to the task. The movie starts out well enough, easily drawing us into its tale of devious behavior in glamorous locales, yet never achieves the velocity and psychological tension of a great suspense yarn, and its latter sections dissolve into confusion, clumsiness and anticlimax. Most of all, it never answers the question Why should we care?

    Among their various celluloid incarnations, Highsmith's fictions have provided the basis for two masterpieces that are my favorite films by their respective directors, Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951) and Wim Wenders' The American Friend (1977; based on the third Ripley novel, Ripley's Game, it stars Dennis Hopper as the title character). The first of Highsmith's novels centered on Tom Ripley, The Talented Mr. Ripley was previously filmed as Purple Noon (1960), a French production that was rereleased in 1996 by Miramax. Besides coreleasing The Talented Mr. Ripley with Paramount, Miramax seems to have a franchise on Oscar winners Damon, Paltrow and Minghella (The English Patient).

    People will tell you that Purple Noon is great film. Don't believe it. The Rene Clement-directed crime drama, which starred Alain Delon at his most youthfully gorgeous, is vivid and chicly decadent, little more. Like The Talented Mr. Ripley, and in stark contrast to Strangers on a Train and The American Friend, it is more a producer's package than a director's vision. Still, the reason it was famous at the time, in both France and the U.S., was that it possessed something that Minghella's rendition notably lacks: a catalytic connection to the zeitgeist.

    Arriving in an historical moment that also saw the advent of taboo-shattering psychological crime films including Psycho and Peeping Tom, as well as arthouse breakthroughs like L'Avventura and the first movies of the French New Wave, Purple Noon strategically straddled American pulp and European intellectualism, reveling in the delicious intricacies of murder at the same time that it mused on identity and its then-daring evocation of homosexuality. In its scheme, gay desire was bound up with self-hatred, envy and moral corruption, but compared to the previous dare-not-speak-its-name era, even that implicitly judgmental stance looked sophisticated and open-minded.

    In 1960, all this was very much of-the-moment. In 1999, it is so archaic as to need translation. Older viewers may want to explain to their juniors that there was once a time when Europe was a far-off place that some young Americans aspired to for its libertine ways and superior culture. (The day I saw Minghella's film there was an op-ed piece in the Times in which Paul Theroux recalled that it used to be possible for youthful dreamers to go abroad and disappear for extended periods; in the age of cellphones and cybercafes, such purposeful truancy is far harder to achieve.) In his own way, Tom Ripley not only gives a criminal spin to the bohemian itineraries of other and earlier American expats, but also reverses the mythic trajectory of the colonists who settled America: rather than escaping corrupt Europe, he wants to escape into it.

    What's he running from? Himself, naturally. Younger viewers may also want to know that personal identity?almost a quaint concept, now?was the cornerstone theme of modernist literature and art films of yore, especially in the 60s. Identity was always in crisis, always whispered of illusion and desperation. For Tom Ripley, as for Camus' Meursault, the Cartesian answer seemed to be, "I murder, therefore I am." Not wanting to be the poor schmuck he was, he went to Europe, became romantically infatuated and then killed in order to be someone else: Dickie Greenleaf, the golden boy with the fortune, the right pedigree, the life of continental class and ease.

    Does any of that say "Matt Damon" to you? In fact, the concept of a quasi-gay (at least), nice-guy psycho killer as the protagonist of a screen story is a pretty anomalous one in today's cinema, when complex, seriously disturbed characters seldom appear at the center of mainstream movies. Actually, Damon does serviceable work in his role?as do Paltrow and Law in theirs?but there's a problem that keeps the performance from being more than workmanlike: Minghella doesn't really know what to do with Ripley, in terms of either cultural resonance or audience identification.

    The filmmaker makes his first mistake, I think, in envisioning Ripley as somehow likable. In Highsmith, we identify with him not because we like him but because we want to see him get away with his nefarious deeds, much as we hope for the cat burglar to grab the jewels and make his escape. Ultimately, the most fascinating and compelling thing about Ripley is what he tells us about our own desires. The most unusual thing about him, in a literary cultural sense, is that he's almost totally amoral. He doesn't recognize good or evil, right or wrong, only the hard imperatives of self-interest.

    Again, its original context provided much of this tale's meaning and interest. When Highsmith's book came along in the 50s?the same was still true of Purple Noon in 1960?society's moral code was still strict and pervasive enough to be considered stiflingly conformist. Imagining a character like Ripley therefore had the force of a needed corrective, one that revealed the personal and social hypocrisies hidden beneath the moral order's heavy facade. A half-century of social disintegration later, the point of Highsmith's provocation is damnably difficult to suggest or put across.

    Still, there's the timeless fascination of a totally amoral character, but Minghella seems too square to get this. His Ripley is not an icy schemer but a nice if slightly screwed-up guy who stumbles into murder. And he agonizes, talking to another character about his desire to lock his bad qualities in a hidden basement room of his personality. This is absurd. Ripley should never agonize, at least not in such a dopey, self-analytic sense; literary-wise it's as off as recasting Milton's Satan as an apologetic ditherer. We want him to kill with an unbothered heart. Minghella's clueless insistence on instilling him with a sweaty moral sense not only muddies and degrades the character but accounts for an ending that cluelessly ruins what was so witty and revolutionary about Highsmith's gist: she let Ripley get away with his mayhem scot-free, like a mischievous kid waltzing away from the train wreck he's caused.

    Besides amorality, the film also misses Ripley's ambiguity. Is he gay? Is that why he kills and wants to appropriate the life and identity of another? Wenders' The American Friend gets this exactly right. It plays its central male characters (Ripley and a Swiss frame-maker) and their story entirely straight?which is what makes the psychosexual tension between the men, as inevitably imagined by the viewer, so powerful and haunting. Minghella, in contrast, commits the cardinal sin of obviousness. As soon as he shows us Ripley ogling Dickie's ass, the bond of psychological intrigue and complicity between the men starts to crumble.

    Like The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley is the work of a second-rate filmmaker given to fumbling literary material beyond his abilities as a thinker and a stylist. Granted, its promise of suave Hitchcockian thrills, and the absence of anything comparable on our screens currently, may stand it in good stead commercially. But, scenic values aside, it is an ersatz enterprise; you'd be better off renting Hitchcock's or Wenders' adaptations of Highsmith.

    The Emperor And the Assassin directed by Chen Kaige Let us allow this of Chinese director Chen Kaige: he has a knack for choosing and getting the best out of brilliant cinematographers. Chen's The Emperor and the Assassin, a sprawling historic epic set in the third century B.C., was shot by Zhao Fei, whose credits include Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Horse Thief, Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern and, now, his first American film, Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. These are all gorgeously photographed movies, but The Emperor and the Assassin may well be the most impressive of all; it is certainly the most expansive. In a film full of armies and landscapes, palaces and smoky halls, Zhao bathes his images in a kind of chilly but sumptuous golden light that offsets the grays, browns and beiges of everything we see; The Emperor and the Assassin may be first big Chinese movie?the first historical epic, at any rate?in which bright primary colors are strictly banished from the frame. In one striking scene, a small army led by a rebel aristocrat invade the imperial balance aiming to kill the emperor, but find themselves entrapped, cut off by a larger force. When the emperor's troops then methodically cut them down with arrows, it seems that Chen and Zhao are even reluctant to show us the rhetorical red of blood. Yet the slate-gray color of the air, stones and sky speak eloquently of the day's bitterness.

    This might seem like mere embellishment, except that in many Chinese art films of the last 15 years visual surfaces have often carried the weight of meaning; indeed, in some cases they have had to suffice for more conventional satisfactions. So it is with The Emperor and the Assassin. Somewhat like a Sino equivalent of Kurosawa's Kagemusha, it seems designed to evoke both psychological and historic upheavals via a richly detailed vision of royal intrigues in centuries past. But Chen, despite his meticulousness and intelligence, lacks Kurosawa's Shakespearean energy and immediacy. His film is distanced and oddly shaped. Running 161 minutes, it gets off to a rather turgid start, and though it soon gains in momentum and dramatic fascination, we always are more tempted toward admiration than involvement.

    The movie features expert, commanding performances by Gong Li and Zhang Fengyi, who previously starred together in Chen's Farewell My Concubine; Chen himself plays a supporting role. The movie's story concerns the sometimes bloody struggles that surrounded the efforts of Qin monarch Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian) to forge China's warring kingdoms into a unified empire. The same tale was also at the core of another recent Chinese epic, Zhou Xiaowen's The Emperor's Shadow. In wondering why this one episode inspired two vast movies, it's hard not to think of political allegory. Both films, after all, bitterly reflect that the human costs of enforcing a centralized autocracy were simply too high. Despite all the blood and suffering that went into its creation, Ying's empire soon collapsed.