Sunday, 24 September 2017

When Conscience Slept: An Analysis of 'Purple Noon/Plein Soleil' (1960 Film)

Spoiler Warning: This will reveal the entire plot of the film, and by extension the plot of the source material, The Talented Mr Ripley

Purple Noon is a work of amoral art. A rare film that playfully imposes judgement on its characters and events, not even on its central murderer and identity thief, Tom Ripley. Any praise or blame you may direct at Tom is very much your own morality, your own judgement, cast like a pebble to skim on an uncaring sea.

Tom Ripley wants what Phillipe Greenleaf’s got: money, luck, a life of leisure in Italy, and a beautiful, if too forgiving, fiancĂ©, Marge. Of all the men in the world to be so blessed, why did it have to be the self-centered, cruel Phillipe. Tom seems fine, basking in the spillover of Phillipe’s decadence. But then, on a boat trip with Phillipe and Marge, things take a turn. After Phillipe and Marge get into a fight, she disembarks at the docks. Tom and Phillipe sail off alone. Phillipe’s luck runs out. Tom doesn’t just want Phillipe’s money, he wants it all. Tom stabs him in the chest, and throws him to the sea. Tom steps into Phillipe’s emptied life. He forges signatures, passports, and romances Marge. Living with Phillipe’s name and money, Tom gets by swimmingly, until one of Phillipe’s friends, Freddie Miles, realizes the man living at ‘Phillipe’s’ apartment is not Phillipe. Tom bludgeons Freddie with a stone buddha. Even this second murder doesn’t sink Tom. To ensure his good life, Tom steps back into his old identity, but not before sending Phillipe’s ‘suicide note’ and all of Phillipe’s money to Marge, and trying to marry Marge. Tom lays in a deck chair, safe in the knowledge the law has no lead on him. And Tom would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for Phillipe’s corpse getting stuck to the hull of the boat Tom was trying to sell.   

Rather than immoral, Tom’s murder of Phillipe feels amoral. By making Phillipe so unpleasant, Tom’s crime ascends from ‘sin’ to ‘public service’. Unlike in Patricia Highsmith’s novel, where we meet Tom impersonating an IRS inspector to swindle people, the film’s first immoral act is by Phillipe. After refusing to pay 800 lira for a meal, Phillipe offers a blind man 20,000 lira for his cane. Phillipe offers so much, not because he wants the tacky cane, but for the satisfaction of forcing someone to make a sadistic choice: forego 20,000 lira, or stumble home without a cane. In either case, Phillipe has abused a disabled man. Throughout this event, Tom’s only evil is that he permits and aids Phillipe’s cruelty. On meeting such a person as Phillipe in real life, you might not think, ‘This man should be killed,’ but you would think, ‘It’d be no shame if he died.’

Within the broader plot, of Tom stealing Phillipe’s identity, it seems Tom started emulating Phillipe before killing him. Tom plays along with Phillipe’s hedonistic amorality, and then goes further than Phillipe. While ‘monkey see, monkey do’ does not defend murder, you wonder if events would have turned out cleaner had Tom met a philanthropist, rather than a rake. By being such an arsehole, Phillipe not only makes his murder more forgivable, but also goes some way to making his own murderer.

The film exploits our schadenfreude for life’s winners. On top of being an arsehole, Phillipe’s a lucky bastard, someone you want to see tumble off his yacht. In the scene with the blind man, successive acts of Phillipe’s self-serving dickery domino in Phillipe’s favour. Phillipe takes a blind man’s cane, so the blind man must take a cab, so that said cab cannot be taken by a young lady, so that the young lady will run into Phillipe, who, with his cane, pretends to be blind, so that he can win the young lady’s sympathy and companionship, so that he can flirt with her throughout the evening, so that she does not even care when she realizes he’s not blind. And, keep in mind, Phillipe has a fiancĂ©, who, even after she reasonably suspects he cheated on her, wants to stay with Phillipe. And he’s rich. You want the cosmos to balance the scales, and kick Phillipe once for every boon it’s given him. Maybe you don’t think he should be stabbed, but, deep down, you really want him to be.

While the film makes the murder seem forgivable, the events after the murder show a world where forgiveness is superfluous, for forgiveness implies morality. Conscience has no grip on Tom, and morality no grip on the world. After both the murder of Phillipe and of Freddie, two separate pairs of priests walk past Tom. Symbols of omniscient morality stroll right past a murderer, twice, as though the avenging angel took a vacation.

More powerful than symbols of an amoral universe, is an amoral point of view. Tom doesn’t care that he’s killed a man. In other stories with a murderer protagonist, you expect, at some point, a flash of guilt or panic or a post-traumatic memory. After Tom’s second murder, he calmly looks over Freddie’s body in the morgue, along with acquaintances and police officers, all of whom he’s trying to fool. Tom is so unaffected by the sight that he can straight afterwards eat a big lunch with his acquaintances, even knowing a police woman is spying on their conversation.

Food becomes a leitmotif of Tom’s amorality. When a normal person does something wrong, they lose their appetite, they may even vomit. After killing Phillipe, Tom devours a peach. When he kills Freddie, Tom roasts a chicken and eats it, all while the corpse lays nearby. In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, Tom browses a fish market. The scene is notable for what doesn’t happen. Up until now, Tom has been occupied with the various tasks necessary for impersonating Phillipe. Now, he’s ambling, with no project to blinker his mind from remembering his crime. Had Tom a glimmer of conscience, he would see flashes of the victim he threw into the sea in these dead fish. But he does not. He eats free samples, and curiously eyes Italian sea life. The camera close-ups on the fish’s faces, but instead of evoking humanity, instead of evoking Phillipe’s face, the audience only feels how inhuman these faces are, how unworthy they are of pity.

The world and protagonist of the film don’t care about the murder, and neither does the narrative structure. Up until the last few minutes, none of the obstacles facing Tom have to do with the murder of Phillipe. Tom faces obstacles, but they concern his stealing Phillipe’s identity, and later his killing Freddie. The film’s second act would remain the same even if, instead of murder, what preceded Tom’s identity theft was Phillipe having a fatal accident, or even Phillipe choosing to flee to a life of anonymity, leaving his identity for Tom to step into. The murder itself has no narrative fallout, as though this most immoral of actions were of no note. Within the last minutes, when Tom’s victory seems assured, the murder does return to smite Tom. It turns out Phillipe’s corpse, rather than falling to the ocean floor, got caught on the boat Tom’s been trying to sell, making Tom’s crime known when the boat gets hoisted out of the sea. This moral comeuppance, however, seems so accidental, so out of Tom’s control, that it feels disingenuous. It feels like an American Hays Code film, where regulation demanded that law and morality reassert themselves by the end, no matter how discordant such an ending would be with the rest of the film.       

In making a murderer amoral rather than merely immoral, the film starts with the easier of two tricks: making the murder victim killable. The audience wants Phillipe to die, and Tom obliges. The harder trick is avoiding the murder’s morality from then after. The film must divest Tom of all flashes of conscience, and the narrative of all moral sentimentality, of all censures and excuses. Until the last few minutes, Purple Noon succeeds. 

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