Blu-ray Review: Criterion Tracks Down MR. KLEIN

Joseph Losey deftly directs Alain Delon in this uniquely noir-esque historical fiction.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
Blu-ray Review: Criterion Tracks Down MR. KLEIN

It’s 1942 in Vichy, France, and you are one Robert Klein.  One of two Robert Kleins, that is.  

You’re reaping rich benefits as a dealer of fine art, as many Jewish citizens are eager to sell.    And you, being a moderately unscrupulous piece of work, are all too happy to take advantage of their desperation with insultingly low offers.  

Life is quite good, until you find yourself mistaken for another Robert Klein… a Robert Klein of Jewish heritage.  And lest we fail to make it clear, this is a particularly horrible time to be Jewish.  There’s only one thing for you to do- scramble to sort this out before you find yourself being rounded up.

It’s 1976 in Movieland, and you’re Alain Delon.  Life has been quite good, starring in all manner of films for all manner of filmmakers opposite all the finest leading ladies.  While no one would ever mistake your internationally famous face for anyone else’s, many are quick to shortchange your acting skills.  Lest we fail to make it clear, they think of you as a pretty boy of limited-to-no range.  There’s only one thing for you do- put on a producer’s hat to make a great film that will prove them all wrong.  That film is Mr. Klein.

Dark like ink but with “reality” to spare, American director Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein trades heavily in film noir trappings without ever getting trapped.  Themes of duality and doppelgängers intermingle with those of manhunts, racism, and authoritarian tyranny.  

Losey himself knows a thing or two about authoritarian overreach, having been targeted for his communist beliefs and party membership dating back to the 1930s.  By the time he made Mr. Klein, widely touted as one of very few “masterpieces” in his admittedly uneven filmography, the filmmaker was decades into a bold if checkered career that spans the globe.  

Ever an intellectual and stylistic risk-taker, Losey (to loosely quote critic Michel Ciment, as featured on the disc) opted to utilize at least two unconventional writers’ storytelling boldness while switching freely between the artistic modes of surrealism, abstraction, and realism.  The result is a film that, while uniquely absorbing, is also not at all inherently accessible.  

Considering that the two authors Losey emulates are (again, according to Ciment) Bertold Brecht and Franz Kafka, this cannot be surprising.  Except, of course, for those of us who approach Mr. Klein cold and free of contextualization.  

That approach -- that of most “ordinary” moviegoers who might’ve taken a casual interest in the latest Alain Delon picture -- can and likely would result in an experience that ranges from unexpectedly challenging to seeing an altogether different story unfold within the same material.  Mr. Klein isn’t one to explain himself.  

Like the character, once we embark, we’re caught up in whatever it is we think we’re caught up in.  The question is, who’s really out to get him.  And why?  The film’s central alienation is cultivated in the key of Brecht, maintaining intentional distancing of the character’s story from “reality”.  Kafka is evoked in the lack of stylistic singularity that is made to be a core aspect of the storytelling.

So… who is Mr. Klein, anyway?  We can only answer about the one played by Delon.  He is the unscrupulous art (and apparently not Jewish) dealer who finds himself pursued by a persecutionary system as he pursues the Klein he’s become mixed up with.  

It all starts when he receives the other guy’s Jewish newsletter by mistake.  That kind of mail can bring the wrong kind of attention to his door; best to get off that mailing list ASAP.  Nothing here is that easy, though.  A veritable blank slate of a man, there’s simply little to relate to in Delon’s character or his portrayal.  This, though, is by design.  

Mr. Klein_1.jpg

Criterion has wrangled the film as part of its canonical collection, spine number 1123.  Longtime Criterion devotees know that Mr. Klein’s standing as a Studiocanal title means that up until not long ago, this release wouldn’t have been possible.  In the shifting landscape of film rights holdings and whatnot, however, here it is.  

Almost completely devoid of music and coldly muted in tone, this movie won’t pass muster with everyone.  Not initially, anyhow.  Without question, it’s the kind of film that demands multiple viewings.  Such extra examination potential makes it that much more of an ideal candidate for ownership.

The extra features here are concise and diverse but not at all slight.  Losey expert critic Michel Ciment turns up twice, most prominently in a new on-camera interview in which he gets into the rough meat of the film’s oblique mystery, and how the filmmaker goes about delivering it.  The interview more than doubles Criterion’s tendency as of late to keep these segments around twenty minutes.  But then, what’s to cut here?  Also, Ciment provides a nearly-thirty-minute audio interview with Losey from the 1970s.

Delon and Losey are featured in other vintage interviews as well, both of which reveal the sincerity and intelligence behind the film.  On the contemporary side, we also hear at length from Mr. Klein’s editor, Henri Lanoë.  While not the most engaging chat, it’s important to gather the memories and perspectives of these key participants while we can.  Already, the Criterion Collection has become an academic repository of vital voices of global cinema’s past.  

Unique in the mix is one of the stranger pieces to turn up as a Criterion bonus feature, though nevertheless welcome.  1986’s feature-length documentary Story of a Day covers the real-life Vél d’Hiv (short for the landmark Rafle du Vélodrome d'HiverRoundup, wherein the French police colluded with the Nazi SS to capture and deport at least 13,152 French Jewish citizens.  Though the similar incident that is depicted in Mr. Klein is fictious, it is nonetheless based upon the real-life atrocity covered here, in depth.  

What makes Story of a Day seem so strange is merely its late-1980s made-for-television aesthetic, complete with a bizarre set and a performative host who is blow-dried, posed, and adorned in big-shouldered Euro-wear of the time.  Weird camera angles and deer-in-the-headlights guests add to the off-kilterness of it all.  While the intent of Story of a Day is noble and even vital regarding this then-swept-away bit of French history, the “hip” execution plays as particularly wrong-headed.

Rounding things out on this Blu-ray edition are newly translated English subtitles, as well as a terrific essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau.  Finally, central to it all is Criterion’s new 4K digital restoration of the picture, accompanied with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack.  The result is a beautifully shot and hauntingly uneasy immersive experience of a recreated era gone by of not so long ago.  

Shining a figurative light on Paris law enforcement’s shameful eagerness to not only comply with the desires of the Third Reich, but to cooperate in a way that went above and beyond is a dark prospect for a French film.  (Delon, being the producer, rightly convinced Losey to keep Mr. Klein as French as possible).  

Mr. Klein, like the character himself, refuses to turn away from the hate-driven reality of what went on.  Though appreciated in the context of its key creative figures (Losey and Delon) as among their best work, Criterion’s new release of this otherwise lesser-known historic fiction gives the rest of Movieland a chance to catch up.  That said, don’t ever expect much literal light in this darkness.

Mr. Klein

  • Joseph Losey
  • Franco Solinas
  • Fernando Morandi
  • Costa-Gavras
  • Alain Delon
  • Jeanne Moreau
  • Francine Bergé
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Alain DelonCriterionFranceJoseph LoseyFranco SolinasFernando MorandiCosta-GavrasJeanne MoreauFrancine BergéCrimeDramaMystery

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