|Filmbrain finally got around to seeing Liliana Cavani's 2002 film Ripley's Game. Here is a film that is in English, stars a bankable actor (John Malkovich), received very good reviews internationally, but was never distributed in the states -- it went straight to cable and DVD in 2003. One would think that the success of Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley would guarantee a decent box-office take, but perhaps the good people at Fine Line know better.|
This is the third novel in Patricia Highsmith's Ripley series, and the second time it has been filmed. Just as The Talented Mr. Ripley was a remake of René Clément's Purple Noon, so it is with Ripley's Game, which is a remake of Wim Wenders' The American Friend. Though there are five Ripley novels, it is the first and the third that seem to attract (and re-attract) directors. There is something surprisingly appropriate about the remakes, given the chameleon-like nature of Tom Ripley. Whereas Clément and Minghella approached the source material in a similar manner, Wenders' and Cavani's takes on Ripley are like chalk and cheese.
Filmbrain was surprised to see Cavani at the helm of Ripley's Game. Sure, The Night Porter is still quite a film, but she has never reached those heights again. The last feature he saw from her was the worse-than-horrible Francesco, which starred Mickey Rourke as St. Francis of Assisi. (No, seriously.) She lucked out here with a better cast, and Malkovich is clearly having too much fun playing the villainous, devilish aesthete Ripley. He's the best thing in the film, and she knows it -- almost every shot of him is in glowing, flattering close-up. The problem is that we've seen Malkovich in this role before, and it comes off as if Ripley had chosen Malkovich as his latest identity theft. Yet Malkovich doesn't steal the spotlight, and Cavani deftly handles his interplay with the supporting cast, especially Dougray Scott, who plays the hapless Jonathan, foil for Ripley's game.
The story is quite simple -- a gangster acquaintance of Tom Ripley attempts to hire him to kill a man. Ripley refuses, and winds up convincing the terminally ill Jonathan, who had recently insulted Ripley, into performing the murder. Though revenge is Ripley's original motivation, he later regrets this and attempts to help Jonathan out of the very predicament that he created.
The most striking difference between Ripley's Game and The American Friend is the pov from which the story is told -- Cavani concentrates on the nefarious Ripley while Wenders instead chooses to focus on the dying Jonathan. Watching the two films back-to-back, Cavani's comes off as slightly dumbed down, with much of the dialog being a bit too on-the-nose. Ripley has some wonderful monologues (thanks no doubt to co-screenwriter Charles McKeown) but the scenes between Jonathan and his wife (not to mention the slo-mo sacrificial ending) are a bit pandering. The inciting incident that brings the two characters together is the same -- Jonathan insults Ripley -- yet Cavani makes it a very public and obvious affair, with Jonathan mouthing off in front of a room full of people, unaware that Ripley is present. Wenders simply shows us a refused handshake. The moment where Ripley confesses to Jonathan is of no surprise in Cavani's film, and very much so in Wenders'.
Then there is Ripley himself. Cavani portrays him as a polished, well-dressed, intellectual connoisseur who lives in an Italian villa with his gorgeous Italian wife who he feeds rare truffles to and buys antique harpsichords for, all while sharing his fiendish plots which seem to serve as aphrodisiac and overture to their passionate lovemaking. Wenders, on the other hand, gives us Dennis Hopper in a cowboy hat. He too lives in a villa, but a dilapidated one in Hamburg, with Cornflakes replacing truffles. Malkovich surrounds himself with antiques and art; Hopper with a pool table and a Wurlitzer jukebox. Hopper's Ripley is more sensitive and suffers from existential angst (like every Wenders character). He makes recordings of himself saying things like, "there's nothing to fear but fear itself" and "I don't know who I am" -- something much more fitting with the Ripley of Highsmith's novels. He's depicted as a lonely man who doesn't even take the time to enjoy the money he makes.
As the dying Jonathan, British actor Dougray Scott seems to be coping with it somewhat better than Wenders regular Bruno Ganz is. Whereas Scott implicitly trusts the local clinic doctors, Ganz is shown several times running through a dimly lit tunnel to his doctor's office, just to question his forthrightness. Both are reluctant killers, and both have to learn how to continue creating tales for their increasingly suspicious wives. It is at the conclusion that the two Jonathans radically diverge. [Spoilers ahead.] Though both have in their own way forgiven Ripley for what he's done, Wenders' Jonathan deserts Ripley at the ocean and drives off to his almost immediate death, whereas Cavani has him making the ultimate sacrifice by throwing himself in front of a bullet aimed at Ripley, who walks away unfazed by the whole incident. This is not nearly as satisfying as Wenders, who chooses to have Jonathan feel more alive than he's felt in ages with his decision to ditch Ripley in the middle of nowhere. Jonathan's death moments later is unexpected -- Ripley has reluctantly won the game, even though he made efforts to stop it. In the end, Wenders has Ripley displaying some remorse, while Cavani, in a particularly haunting finale, has him casually showing up at his wife's recital as if nothing had happened.
Both films are highly enjoyable, and choosing one over the other really depends on your mood. If you want a well-acted, stylish suspense thriller with gorgeous European locales, go with Ripley's Game. But if a bit of Weltschmerz and views of a gloomy rainy Hamburg is your thing, go for Wenders' The American Friend (plus, you get to see the acting skills of Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller and Jean Eustache -- a nice bonus.)