Saturday 9 May 2020

On demand: "Mr. Klein"

Mr. Klein finds Joseph Losey playing a cool, cruel game with doubles and otherness. Alain Delon is the refined, complacent Gentile trading off his name in Nazi-occupied Paris by purchasing those artworks the city's Jewish residents have started selling off in an attempt to save themselves. This comfortable existence is rudely interrupted one afternoon when he learns he's been subscribed to a Jewish newspaper, a mix-up that may have something to do his Jewish namesake (and, it turns out, doppelganger), who's living on the other side of town in a rat-infested apartment. It's not that this high-flier collapses entirely: as a performer, Delon was made of sterner granite, as Losey well knew, and to some degree the party goes on. (We watch him clinking champagne flutes with a redhead even as the police arrive in his apartment; with twenty minutes to go, we find him chatting up a fellow train passenger.) Yet there's little doubt that his foundations are shaken: we're watching a wobble, with a prospect of a fall as terrible as the one we bear witness to on the streets outside Klein's door.

The most terrifying aspect of this downfall is that it's almost entirely self-induced, born of this Klein's morbid curiosity regarding his shadow self's whereabouts, and how the other half live. Evidently, the class system Losey dissected so acutely in The Servant and Accident dated back some while, and the film puts a degree of privilege up on screen that threatens to become oppressive in its own way - a deliberate choice that flags what's truly important in this tale, which is everything that this privilege blocks out. Losey ensures there's barely a trace of actual Jewish Paris in the picture for most of Mr. Klein's running time; from Delon's fetish-item green-and-gold smoking jacket to the network of well-connected nobs he turns his back on, the focus falls instead on those layers of insulation and protection the protagonist insists on scratching away at, eventually tearing a hole in. The moral, stark as you may or may not like, is that there are points in history where granite crumbles, privilege wears thin. As with most Losey - a cinematic mortician, wheeling out the bodies of the damned and the dead - it arrives fully refrigerated, but you may well find its grey, wintry Paris getting into your bones; there's no denying the film fosters a troubling mood, even as its infernal logic carries the protagonist on train tracks to the one place you expect him to go.

Mr. Klein is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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