Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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JOSEPH LOSEY: MR. KLEIN/MONSIEUR KLEIN (1976) - new 4K restoration


At France's worst hour, a man in flight from himself

Mr. Klein is a film that has rarely been shown on the big screen and I have just now seen it for the first time. I was thrilled but, as can happen after long waits, a little disappointed. Rialto Pictures (whose reissue list is studded with European masterpieces) began its US distribution of a 4K Restoration of Joseph Losey's 1976 Mr. Klein at Film Forum in New York in early October (See Anthony Lane's Aug. 30 New Yorker review). It comes to other cities through January 2020. As one of the distinctive works of this peculiar, complicated American director exiled by the McCarthyist red scare, it's a must-see. It's a dazzling and haunting, creepily elegant and surprisingly real and present evocation of the worst of times in France, the Nazi occupation.

To make the ugliness of this time crystal clear, Losey begins with the prologue of an appalling, but true, scene in a ridiculously large Parisian doctor's office where a dumpy, naked lady is subjected to a humiliating "racial examination," rougher than a decent veterinarian would impose, pushing around her mouth and nose and hair and dictating "characteristics" to a note-taking nurse and concluding, for the appropriate Occupation city bureau, that the "patient" is certifiably "Semitic," but could be Armenian, Jewish, or Arab; it can't be narrowed down. The lady, dressed nicely, rejoins her husband, who has submitted to the same obscene and meaningless humiliation; they pass through a waiting room crammed with people waiting to undergo the same ordeal. The couple do not speak to each other of what they've undergone. Only now do we join Robert Klein and his world of indolent ease, in his fine house where he won't let his mistress (Juliet Berto) get out of bed - till she bolts.

Though elegant, Mr. Klein is also somewhat bloated. Pauline Kael called it "a classic example of his weighty emptiness." She says the film is "the kind of parable-thriller that has to be tight to be effective," while Losey "keeps it going for over two hours." The other central problem is the stiff performance of Delon, who after a period of unparalleled glamor and gorgeousness was, in his early forties, "not aging especially well" (as Vincent Canby wrote in his Nov. 1977Times review), and lacks focus as the hollow Klein. The iconic Michel Lonsdale Pierre, as Klein's low-keyed, unreliable lawyer, whose wife is Klein's girlfriend, though barely visible, is already more interesting. Jeanne Moreau is unforgettable in her cameo as a mysterious, aristocratic mistress in a chateau. Delon seems dutiful, working a "Message" picture for a foreign director, impeccable, yet out of place. And this film reminds us what a very great director and true auteur Jean-Pierre Melville was and remains. Lane reminds us that in the next decade, his Dorian Gray beauty still more seriously decayed, Delon was to have a great role as Proust's Baron Charlus in Volker Schlöndorff's Swann in Love.

Of Losey's three late gems (setting aside the oddball anomaly of Modesty Blaise), Mr. Klein and the Pinter collaborations The Servant and Accident, only The Servant truly succeeds structurally, because it's a continuous picture of decline and role reversal, and so it has a unity and focus the others lack.

Alain Delon's well-off, self-indulgent Robert Klein (pronounced in the French way, like "clan" without the "n"), is Alsatian Catholic, an art dealer who lives in style in Paris in the elegant seventh arrondissement, on the Rue du Bac. Under the German occupation, he, as an art dealer, is buying paintings from Jews preparing hastily to flee the country. He chisels a gentleman, paying half the fair price for a 17th century Dutch painting of a man in black holding a vial of yellow fluid. (Well known actual dealers, even Jewish ones, are known to have cheated Jewish collectors at this time in the same way.)

But Klein (it's never noted in the film that this is a common Jewish name - the name also, by the way, of a famous - non-Jewish - modern French artist, famous for "Klein blue") was not Jewish. An assumption of the story is that it would not have occurred to him that his name could get him into trouble. This seems an absurdist notion, like something in a Ionesco play. Anyway, Klein has never discovered the embarrassment of knowing he has a name that sounds Jewish. Perhaps he is just too privileged. When he goes to Strasbourg to check his (non-Jewish) family credentials with his father, we see what a posh world he comes from.

What happens is worse than simply being thought Jewish for his name (and whether that's a mistake or not we never learn). Klein starts getting confused with a man named Robert Klein who putatively is Jewish - or at least is on the subscription list of the Occupation-sanctioned Jewish newsletter, Informations juives. Confusedly, "our" Klein begins to track down Klein II, to a wretched, rat-infested Pigalle apartment, now ostensibly for rent by a fussy concierge (Suzanne Flon). Maybe Klein II (if he exists) is the "good" Klein: he might have been in the Resistance.

There is a succession - too long a one - of scenes that show off the bloat of fat cats, the ever-presence of ferocious and obsessive antisemitism, and of police and of their long, slinky black Citroen motorcars. Klein I's relentless pursuit of Klein II, his shadowy better half/doppelgänger, gets him in more and more serious and dangerous trouble. He should have headed for the boat at Marseille Pierre arranged for him. The mood approaches Christian Petzold's disquieting Transit, and the focus on wartime Paris addresses evokes Patrick Modiano. But there is something too busy, too confused. Klein I loses himself, revealing he never had a self. But as an existential hero, he lacks the edge of Camus' Stranger. It gets lost in the enjoyably posh mise-en-scene. Nonetheless, when the time comes for the Paris roundup of "foreign" Jews and the infamous "Raffle du Vél d'Hiv," there is terror and horror enough to focus the mind even of this meandering film and scattered antihero.

Mr. Klein/Monsieur Klein, 123 mins., debuted at Cannes May 1976, restored version released in France Nov. 26, 2014; US restored version Oct. 2019.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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