Actor Alain Delon appears at 4070 Vilas Hall in a chic, three-week Thursday series starting June 30 with “La Piscine.”
The piercing blue eyes of Alain Delon alternate between a deliberate blankness and a slightly annoyed squint. He rarely has to play any scene with big emotion, as most are already fixated on his symmetrical and well-proportioned face, a center of gravity whenever it appears on screen. Not that he isn’t capable of displaying emotions, but he usually keeps them close to the vest, carrying himself like a man fully aware of the advantages of being really, really ridiculously good-looking.
France’s answer to Paul Newman is still alive and kicking at 86, despite being the victim of a death hoax earlier this year. Delon’s more or less retired these days, but he can rest on the laurels of a long career, working with acclaimed directors like Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Louis Malle, and Jean- Luc Godard. He even got in on the Hollywood disaster movie with Airport ’79 (1979). This summer, UW Cinematheque offers three opportunities to gaze upon his perfectly sculpted face in some of his more populist fare on three consecutive Thursdays: La Piscine (1969) on June 30, Les Seins De Glace aka Icy Breasts (1974) on July 7, and Le Samouraï (1967) on July 14. All screenings start at 7 p.m.
Starting off this series is the most summery of the three, La Piscine. Delon and co-star Romy Schneider lounge by the pool in a remote villa in St. Tropez. Their seclusion and attempts at poolside sex are interrupted by a phone call from old mutual friend Harry (Maurice Ronet), who soon arrives in person with his previously unmentioned teenage daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin) in tow. The isolation of the four principal characters forces them to bounce off each other in different combinations, occasionally sparking long-standing resentments they weren’t quite aware of having. This dynamic makes La Piscine play like a slightly more sexed-up version of something like La Collectionneuse (1967), Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolfe? (1966), or Cul-de-Sac (1966) of the same period. A shocking twist necessitates the arrival of the outside world in the form of Inspector Leveque (Paul Crauchet). That’s when we finally learn everybody’s last names, and the summer bubble bursts.
La Piscine was a huge hit in France at the time of its release, in part thanks to the tabloid coverage of Delon reuniting with former fiancée Schneider after seven years apart for some particularly saucy scenes. Delon actively lobbied for Schneider to be cast, insisting she was the only person who could play the part, and actually threatened to walk off the project if the producers went with their preferred choice of Monica Vitti. There’s certainly enough heat and stylish costuming to attract viewers who are looking for a particularly well-executed genre movie, as La Piscine did in the summer of 2021 when it played at Film Forum in New York City for nearly four months. Prior to last year, it was difficult to see in the US, even after it was the basis for Luca Guadagnino’s 2015 English-language remake, A Bigger Splash. La Piscine isn’t without its detractors, but it offers a good opportunity to mentally lounge with the characters and some decidedly bourgeois concerns, if they can be said to be concerns at all. It even features a poolside party with a bunch of hippies, but their own questioning of societal order doesn’t go any further than the chorus of Michel Legrand’s soundtrack song “Ask Yourself Why” that asks why there are signs to keep off the grass and why there are so many parking lots being built.
Next up, on July 7, is a counterpoint to La Piscine‘s summer vibes: George Lautner’s Les Seins De Glace (literally translated as Icy Breasts, and sometimes sharing the slightly less awkward title as its source material, Someone Is Bleeding), which opens on TV drama writer François (Claude Brasseur) sitting frustrated at a typewriter in the off-season seaside town of Nice. François happens upon a Hitchcock blonde in full furs (Mireille Darc, who was in a relationship with Delon at the time of filming) walking along the beach. He immediately goes after her, letting her know she’s the protagonist he’s been looking for, seemingly unaware that his sex-romp narrative tactics are leading him straight into a gothic mystery. He eventually gets her name, Peggy, and a number written on the window of the car he laid down in front of to stall her. When he pulls up to pick her up for a date, François encounters her lawyer Marc Rilson (Delon), who tries to warn him to stay away from Peggy, because she murdered her husband in a fit of insanity.
Delon is especially pale here, either looking the part of a sinister manipulator or a man slowly being drained of his energy by a tragic devotion to an unwell woman. Brasseur’s François is boisterous by comparison, convincing himself (and possibly Peggy) that all she needs is to get out on her own. This is despite her insistence that someone is watching her every move, and clawing at her bedroom door at night. François invites Peggy out of the gated estate and into his bed fitted with cartoon graphic bed sheets. He may be a little blinded to the fact that he can’t write a happy ending to the story he’s participating in, but his upbeat doggedness guides viewers to discover exactly what is happening in the cold dark house. Of course, François could simply heed the advice of both Marc and his wife (Nicoletta Machiavelli), who seems incredulous that every man who lays eyes on Peggy is drawn into her orbit to the point of obsession.
Le Samouraï, which closes out this series on July 14, is Delon stripped down to the bare essentials. He plays hitman Jef Costello, a loner who starts his day by smoking on a bed that doesn’t even have bed sheets, awaiting his next assignment. He doesn’t utter a word more than he has to, or make any movement that’s not essential to his current goal. While carrying out his latest hit, he’s seen clearly by a singer in a club (Caty Rosier) where he kills the owner. He makes the split-second decision to slip out wordlessly instead of eliminating the witness, which leads him into a police roundup. His perfectly calculated alibi piques the interest of a detective (François Perier), who can’t help but try to poke some holes in his down-to-the-minute airtight story Jef has rehearsed with girlfriend Jane Lagrange (Nathalie Delon, who was married to Delon at the time of filming). Of course, the mere appearance of the police on his tail is enough to get his employers to turn on him, so he then has to plan moves accounting for two opponents.
The style of the film mirrors Jef’s own temperaments: there’s no classic noir voiceover, no indication of his inner life, a minimalist jazzy score by François de Roubaix, and a muted color palette of mostly cool blue and beige. Jef’s armor is anonymity, adorned with a gray fedora and trench coat that could be worn by anyone. All the principal characters remain totally calm while trying to destroy the others or avoid the fate that seems to be bearing down on them. Delon’s tough-guy stoicism influentially reverberates through many of the crime dramas that followed, most obviously in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011).