Ripley’s Game

Ripley’s Game, directed by Liliana Cavani, and starring John Malkovich, is the best film adaptation of any of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels that I have seen. I like it far better than Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, based on the same novel; I also vastly prefer it to Rene Clement’s so-so Purple Noon, based on The Talented Mr. Ripley. (Admittedly I haven’t seen Anthony Minghella’s version of the latter; let’s just say that I am unable to imagine a possible world in which it would be any good, and leave it at that).
The film struck me as excellent on its own terms, as well as being quite faithful to Highsmith. (I won’t say much about Highsmith here, except to note that I consider her the greatest crime writer of the 20th century, mistress of a cosmic nihilism, combining cold calculation with even icier passion, that has never been matched).
First of all, because of John Malkovich. Ripley is the role he was born to play. He’s letter-perfect, embodying a combination of chilly amorality and dilettantish aestheticism. His affectlessness is at once creepy and charismatic; the film (like the novel) forces you to identify with him, but makes that identification as uncomfortable as possible. Malkovich as Ripley has the inhuman detachment of a scientist vivisecting insects to satisfy some arcane and purely theoretical curiosity. He barely loses this distance, even when he himself is directly involved and threatened. At the end of the film, when the man he has manipulated and seduced into becoming a killer for hire takes the bullet that was intended for him, Ripley/Malkovich is bemusedly puzzled (but not really disturbed) as to why anybody would do such a thing as sacrifice himself for another.
Second, because of Cavani’s direction. She presents the film, surprisingly but effectively, as more a melodrama than a thriller. The melodramatic sense of oversize emotions cast adrift in a void really works, even though it shouldn’t; and even though the melodrama is understated and implicit, rather than overt. Highsmith’s psychological coldness and creepiness and low affect is far removed from what we usually think of as melodrama, but in a subtle way, this particular story, with its emphasis on the corruption of innocence, lends itself to it.
A word about Cavani. To my mind, she is the most underrated director of her generation (she was born in 1933). She is best known for the s&m/Nazi chic (entirely aesthetically justified, in my view) of The Night Porter; the obsessive love triangle of that film is itself obsessively replicated, with equal success, in such brilliant but little-known films as The Berlin Affair, the incredible Beyond Obsession (a sort of surreptitious remake of Wuthering Heights, with Marcello Mastroianni as a sleazy Heathcliff figure), and the deliriously over-the-top Beyond Good and Evil (the story of the Nietzsche/Lou Andreas-Salome/Paul Ree triangle). Ripley’s Game could itself be considered as a desexualized version of this triangle, with the innocent co-protagonist torn between bourgeois fulfillment with his wife, and the allure of transgression with Ripley. (Not to mention gut-wrenching guilt, which Ripley is entirely insensitive to, but which he feels, and takes a certain morbid delectation in). I should also mention, in a somewhat different register, Cavani’s film about St Francis of Assisi, starring Mickey Rourke (!!!) as the saint — an insane bit of counter-intuitive casting which Cavani nonetheless carries off. Cavani’s films are not very striking visually, but she has a genius for getting the most out of her actors while putting them into incredibly perverse situations, and for pushing the logic of dispropotionate, melodramatic desire to truly outrageous and disturbing extremes.

One Response to “Ripley’s Game”

  1. Ripley’s Game

    Did I mention that I loved Liliana Cavini’s Ripley’s Game, starring John Malkovich? Steven Shaviro did, and his comments are excellent. My own thoughts: I love Malkovich’s Ripley for the same reasons I love Hannibal Lecter; not because both characters …