Alter/Ego: Joseph Losey’s ‘Mr. Klein’ (1976)

❉ Alain Delon stars in a genuinely frightening film that holds your nerves in its icy grip without ever becoming overtly violent or horrific.

Mr Klein shares more than a hint of Dostoevsky’s The Double, and prefigures Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy in its exploration of someone’s sense of self crumbling when faced with what could be an alter-ego.”

The first thing we see in Mr Klein, Joseph Losey’s French-language drama from 1976, is a woman’s face. It is not the sort of face that usually starts a film: the camera’s gaze upon her is stark and flat, her skin betrays signs of middle age, her black hair is streaked with grey, her expression is strained. She’s trying to remain emotionally neutral, but there’s a hint of panic in her eyes.

Hands roughly pull her head from side to side to inspect her teeth, her gums, her ears. A voice dispassionately recounts the findings: “Scalp low. Forehead narrow. Eyelids drooping. Skin swarthy. Hair thick, oily, shiny.” Then a phrase that sends chills down the spine: “facial expression more or less Jewish”. As a nurse takes notes the expressionless, bespectacled doctor makes the woman (now in long shot we see she is completely naked) walk away from him on tiptoe commenting on her hips (’naturally large and flaccid’) and the soles of her feet (‘complete absence of an arch’).

As the woman hastily dresses, cocking an ear to listen to the doctor’s summation we have been made aware in seconds of the insidious horror of dehumanisation. That it happens in broad daylight, in a well-lit office, with no overt violence, just a certain brusqueness and lack of human feeling, human connection. The violence, history tells us, is implicit: this is occupied Paris in 1942. This is not an insurance check-up or a regular consultation. This is life or death.

This scene (which bizarrely culminates with the woman asking “How much do I owe you?”: obligation piled on top of humiliation) is as succinct a precis of the following film’s theme and tone as it’s possible to get. When people have a finger pointed at them and are identified as The Other, and are gradually acted upon by degrees so that they become less than human in the eyes of their fellow citizens, their every waking thought becomes a nightmare, every glance they behold becomes an accusation.

Enter Robert Klein (Alain Delon, just at the point where the gleam was ever-so-slightly starting to tarnish on his physical beauty) sophisticated Parisian art dealer, dashing charmer, popular man about town. In his gilded dressing gown, surrounded by paintings and objets d’art he has acquired by (it is hinted) less than honourable means, haggling with a timid but sharp-witted Jewish client over a family heirloom, he resembles royalty or a painting of a Pope. As his lingerie-clad girlfriend (Juliette Berto) surveys his luxurious bathroom and caresses his expensive razor, Klein talks his client down in price, betting on the man’s desperation to sell. As the man leaves with much less than he’d expected Klein discovers a pamphlet, addressed to him, on his doorstep: a pamphlet intended for Jews. Klein, as we soon learn is a high Catholic from a wealthy family, practically aristocracy in Vichy France. The idea of him being mistaken for a Jew is absurd, no? Laughable, no?

Not laughable, no. Not as it turns out.

For it soon transpires that this seemingly random misunderstanding is the loose thread that slowly and nightmarishly begins to unravel Klein’s world, piece by piece, inch by agonising inch. His investigations lead him to discover another Robert Klein, inhabiting another, much seedier part of the city. This Robert Klein however is no more solid than a ghost, always having been seen in just the places ‘our’ Klein finds himself days or sometimes hours later, looking and sounding just like him. Klein’s ostensible amusement at his odd predicament is undercut by real fear: a prank is a prank, a misunderstanding just that, but what if this is neither a prank nor a misunderstanding? When he informs the police they regard him with the same coldness and detachment the physician observed the woman with in the opening scene: an unsmiling politeness, practically through gritted teeth. His sophisticated friends are mildly alarmed by the whole thing, and one gets the feeling that all of this is an inconvenience and an embarrassment to them as much as to Klein. As coincidences and missed connections pile up, we begin to understand that Klein’s quest to clear his name (or at least disassociate himself from his phantom other self, who may or may not also be a seditionary planning deadly acts of terrorism in the city) may be motivated by the very same anti-Semitic disgust (no, not disgust: ‘distaste’ is the sort of word he’d use to dilute the meaning) that is felt by the authorities, by his own friends, his own family. People start to ask if there is any hint of Hebrew in his blood that he may not know about. He is no longer sure of his own ‘purity’, and this very idea seems to punish him as much as the attentions of the ever-present police, or the manipulations of his faceless namesake, his invisible tormentor.

Mr Klein is that most elusive of things, a genuinely frightening film that illuminates its dark themes and holds your nerves in its icy grip without ever becoming overtly violent or horrific. Its fears are those that were best illustrated by Orwell, or Kafka, the idea that a sinister bureaucracy knows something about us, something incriminating, that we don’t even know about ourselves. There’s something Orwellian in the triumphalist radio broadcasts about France’s victorious Phalangists, and in the sinister mobilisation of troops and gendarmerie that we glimpse once or twice: something Kafka-esque about the huge sports stadium we periodically see being turned into curtained cubicles, interview rooms… Holding pens?

 It also shares more than a hint of Dostoevsky’s The Double, and prefigures Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy in its exploration of someone’s sense of self crumbling when faced with what could be an alter-ego. It resembles and prefigures Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut in a sequence where Klein arrives by night at a mysterious country mansion in place of the Other Klein: the long dimly-lit hallways pockmarked by blank spaces where paintings used to hang, the drawing room full of people who turn their unnerving gaze upon him one by one. It is here where he is told a little of his tormentor by a flirtatious socialite (Jeanne Moreau) who describes her erstwhile lover to Klein as ‘a serpent who is hibernating, waiting for a friendlier season’.

There’s an apocryphal quote by Stanley Kubrick regarding Schindler’s List: Kubrick admired the film but felt that ‘it was about winning (surviving) and the Holocaust was all about losing’. Mr Klein is ultimately about a winner, an elite, an untouchable who slowly finds himself all-too-touchable. As the western world continues to lean ever-farther-right and refugees and second-or-third generation immigrants are increasingly talked about as ‘not belonging here’ with zero shame by people who should learn their history, its lessons are all-too suited to today’s climate. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, because if it tolls for you nobody will care if it’s got the right guy or not. They’ll just get on with the mundane job of putting you on a train. The images that linger longest in the mind from this film (undoubtedly one of Losey’s most under-appreciated) are those shots of frightened and confused men and women boarding buses at not-quite-gunpoint and being driven through streets of oblivious pedestrians, shopping, chatting, laughing. Nothing is happening here that affects THEM: therefore, nothing is happening here at all.

A brief post-script: this project was brought to Losey by Alain Delon himself, who has a producer’s credit on the film. In 1975/6 it seems, this tale of marginalised people being humiliated, dehumanised and ultimately carted off for systematised mass-murder was an important one for him to tell. I wonder how that younger, leaner Delon would feel about his older self’s alleged support of Marine Le Pen’s French National Front? We’ll never know, so it can’t be important. Can it? 

❉ Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein (1976), starring Alain Delon, Jeanne Moreau, and Francine Bergé, was released on Blu-ray by StudioCanal on September 13 2021.

❉ Daniel Marner is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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