French movie stars have an undeniable je ne sais quoi, probably just because they can pronounce it better than everybody else and so have an unfair advantage. Whatever the reason, France’s film icons manage to emanate heat even when they’re just wandering around on screen acting chilly and bored. (Nothing says art to the Gallic sensibility more than boredom. If someone starts to boil an egg in a French film you know you’ve got time to head to the restroom and stop at concessions on the way back.)
In his opening moment in La Piscine, which played last night at SIFF Cinema as part of its French crime wave series, Alain Delon lies in the sun on his back next to a swimming pool. He’s so bored with the idea of raising his head that he simply lifts his glass above his face and pours a drink into his open mouth. This was sexier than anything I’ve seen an American actor do in years, mainly, I think, because American male movie stars have issues about how to handle their hotness.
Rudolph Valentino and any number of B-grade beefcake players freely offered their beauty to the screen, but aside from Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro—the most unconcerned sex god in the history of film—men in American movies have had to pretend they didn’t know what you were looking at. Richard Gere in his younger days certainly always seemed ready to grab the camera and show you the part of himself he liked best; he nearly turned wanton self-regard into an art form in the underrated remake of (ironically) the French New Wave classic Breathless. He took a lot of flak for it at the time even though female movie stars are encouraged to make their names off of just such self-regard (And some of them enjoyed it. Why not? Jean Harlow, back in the ’30s, gave you the feeling she would’ve welcomed an entire documentary crew underneath her negligee).
Whenever a man takes an inward pleasure in himself on screen—as opposed to turning it outward, where it’s to be used as an excuse to dominate a female costar—he gets labeled a preening ponce.
Delon, however, became famous by using his beauty as an irrefutable fact. He looked like trouble from the word go—he was, in real life, often linked to the mob and somewhere along the line managed to have a son with the Velvet Underground’s Nico, to give you an idea of his particular joie de vivre. But his looks and his menace were happily intertwined. The guy was no great actor; he spent a lot of time scrunching his brow as if it hurt to think. Yet his commitment to his own narcissism was transfixing and, with a good director, he knew how to tweak it: The best part of movies like La Piscine or Plein Soleil (the original version of The Talented Mr. Ripley) are when Delon proves to be a real creep and you’re still turned on.
Is that acting? I don’t know. I think so. But I don’t care either way. What made Delon great was that, from all available cinematic evidence, he didn’t care, either.