Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Some Thoughts About Der amerikanische Freund (1977) & Ripley’s Game (2002)

Even if you ignore the twenty-five years of change in the technical aspects of filmmaking and the world around it, it does come as a bit of a surprise how different these two adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s novel - the older directed by Wim Wenders, the newer by Liliana Cavani – are. Even though both films hew very close to some of the main plot beats, there’s a world of difference in sensibility between them. As a dear friend of mine remarked when I tried to explain the difference between the films, it’s a lot like a piece of classical music realized by (very) different conductors.

The choice of very different lead actors and two very different approaches to the character of Tom Ripley seem to me symptomatic for the difference between the two films: where John Malkovich in the Cavani film hews closer to Highsmith’s text and is a cultured sociopath whose main relation to neurotypical humanity seems to me a curiosity about how people who are very much not like him function internally, Dennis Hopper’s Ripley is a guy in cowboy hat who understands high art probably as well as the Malkovich character does but seems to find actual enjoyment in those things Malkovich-Ripley will probably sniff at as low-brow, and who seems not as precisely drawn as is his 2002 counterpart. There’s a blurriness around Hopper-Ripley’s edges, a wavering between a kind of melancholy that would be alien to Malkovich’s Ripley and the ability for ruthless action they both share. As its Ripley, so are the films: Wenders’s movie feels much more leisurely, much more interested in exploring the inner life of Bruno Ganz’s Jonathan Zimmermann (his version of Dougray Scott’s character in the Cavani film) but also arguing that you can’t understand anyone’s inner life in a precise way. Meandering and circling and walking in a direction that might very well be the wrong one (but one won’t know until one has tried) is more Wenders’s style.

Cavani’s film, on the other hand, seems to me to be all about precision and hard edges, to always know where it is going and why in the clearest manner. Malkovich’s portrayal of Ripley is of a fastidious and neat man who always gives at least the illusion of control, so Cavani’s treatment of the plot needs to and does feel much tighter and leaner than Wenders’s approach. One would be tempted to call her film more conventional, but that does sound rather patronizing to a film that is as strong as this one, and that is as much about finding beauty in the strangest of places, moments and people as it is about its thriller plot. Perhaps the difference is that one of these films was made by a woman who is nearly seventy and has seen and experienced a lot more and the other one by a comparatively young man who still had a lot to catch up on when he made it.

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