Exiled American filmmaker delivers a late-career masterpiece with Mr. Klein.
Joseph Losey’s directing career can be divided, if not outright bisected, into before HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) and after HUAC. The end of World War II also meant the end of the West’s alliance with the Soviet Union and the beginning of the decades-long Cold War. In turn, left-leaning artists, intellectuals, and political figures immediately became suspect. In Hollywood, artists who expressed sympathies with socialist or communist ideas or participated in left-leaning theatre (including the federally funded Federal Theatre Project popular at the height of the Great Depression) found themselves suspected of treason against the United States and its capitalistic ethos. HUAC placed an emphasis on “naming names,” strong-arming Hollywood filmmakers into betraying each other to save their own careers. Many did. Some, like Joseph Losey, at the time a film noir specialist, didn’t, instead choosing permanent exile in Europe.
Losey restarted his career in Great Britain. Unlike many others, Losey didn’t find just a measure of success working in Europe. Unmoored by the restrictive demands of the Hollywood system, Losey thrived across the better part of 20 to 30 years, directing several masterpiece-level films, graduating from the film noirs that became synonymous with his name both in Hollywood and in the U.K. to an incredible run of multilayered, socio-cultural character studies, including The Servant (1963), King & Country (1964), Modesty Blaise (1966), Figures in a Landscape (1970), and The Go-Between (1971). Several slightly underwhelming entries later, Losey returned with Monsieur Klein, a career-capper now given new life in a splendid release from the Criterion Collection.
Monsieur Klein opens not with the title character played by former Euro heartthrob Alain Delon, an amoral art dealer leveraging his position and status in 1942 Vichy France, but with an unnamed, naked woman in close-up as she undergoes a deeply uncomfortable clinical examination by an expressionless, unemotional doctor. As the doctor calls out measurements, however, it becomes immediately clear that this isn’t an ordinary medical examination. He’s using the baseless pseudoscience of eugenics and racial classification to describe the woman’s “Jewishness.” Everything from her hairline to the shape of her eyes and even her walk gets called out by the doctor to a sitting nurse taking copious notes. His conclusion, though, ends with the word “doubtful,” and directions to the woman to pay 15 francs for the degrading, humiliating examination.
That first scene, a mini-film on its own, says a great deal about both the nature of Vichy France, where the nominal French government not only accepted the German occupation but actively collaborated with it, turning in French resistance members and political opponents to face torture, imprisonment, or execution. Opponents also included the French Jewish population; in one incident, French police rounded up more than 12,000 Jews and handed them over to Nazi authorities to be deported to death camps in what is now known as the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup.
It’s against this backdrop where Robert Klein (a perfectly cast Delon) finds himself. Guided by pure self-interest, he exploits the desperate situation of French Jews to separate them from their valuable possessions, including works of art passed on from generation to generation. Klein claims he doesn’t take pleasure in paying so little for the paintings, but it’s obvious that his words are merely meant as a salve to ease one transaction after another. Meeting one desperate man in his overstuffed apartment while his lover awaits his return to their bed, Klein greets him in a gold and green silken robe, a break with social niceties that points to Klein’s superior, untouchable social position.
Before he can usher the man to the hallway outside his apartment, though, Klein finds something curious on his doorstep: A Jewish community newspaper addressed to him personally. Klein, of course, sees it as an affront or insult, a prank played by a disappointed or frustrated seller or an old acquaintance with a curdled sense of humor. That sense of unapproachable, inviolate entitlement sends Klein into a minor paroxysm of anger, then to the office of the Jewish newspaper and eventually to the local police station. In an absurd but no less predictable twist of bureaucratic fate, Klein’s sense of entitlement ultimately proves to be his undoing: By approaching the police about another Robert Klein who must be attempting to somehow upend his life, Klein becomes a suspect; his identity as a Frenchman, once settled, becomes unsettled. And the more Klein attempts to find the other (Jewish) Klein, the more likely it becomes that he will be fatally confused for his doppelgänger.
Outside of one brief scene where he’s partially seen, Losey keeps this other Klein off-screen. He may be “real,” as character after character attests, but he repeatedly eludes our increasingly desperate, off-balance main Klein. As Klein becomes obsessed with finding the mysterious man, the identity he never questioned and took for granted begins to dissolve and the differences between the two start to disappear. There’s obviously an element of justified comeuppance to Klein’s plight and eventual fate, but there’s also another equally important element: When the state in all its awesome power decides to create and erase distinctions arbitrarily, everyone, no matter how safe and secure they imagine themselves to be from injustice, is in danger. Klein, in turn, becomes an ambiguously sympathetic figure, a victim of a faceless bureaucratic state, and for Losey, a filmmaker who saw his own beliefs and convictions turned against him, an object lesson, a cautionary tale and a warning to everyone on the other side of the screen.
- New 4K digital restoration with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- Interviews with critic Michel Ciment and editor Henri Lanoë
- Interviews from 1976 with director Joseph Losey and actor Alain Delon.
- Story of a Day, a 1986 documentary on the real Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, a central historical element of Monsieur Klein.