One of 2003's best foreign films, an Italian-produced version of the Patricia Highsmith suspense novel, Ripley's Game, won't be shown theatrically in the USA, even with John Malkovich splendidly malevolent in the title role of Tom Ripley, and with authoritative filmmaking by the veteran director, Liliana Cavani. Check the Independent Film Channel (IFC), where it screens instead.
I had a rare American meeting with Cavani, when she traveled from Rome to Cambridge last Spring as a guest of the Boston International Festival of Women's Festival. In halting English, she introduced a Brattle screening of Ripley's Game ("I love Patricia Highsmith, and have read most of her books") and also a special showing of her ever-controversial The Night Porter (1974), dramatizing the bizarre love relation, years after World War II, of an ex-Nazi guard (Dirk Bogarde) and the woman (Charlotte Rampling) he tormented when she was a concentration camp prisoner.
The l'amour fou of The Night Porter signaled a declaration by Cavani of an unapologetic screw-society morality (amorality?), not unlike the Nietzschean world view of Tom Ripley art connoisseur, world citizen, casual murderer in Highsmith's Ripley novels (five in all).
"Ripley kills only when he's in danger, for self-defense, before they kill him," Cavani defended Highsmith's protagonist, when we talked over lunch through a translator-from-Italian, Flavia Laviosa, a Wellesley professor. "He's not a common criminal. He's a very intelligent man with a strong sense of aesthetics. He loves beautiful things. Even though he's not highly educated, he's very curious, he wants to learn. Like Highsmith, Ripley is an American who came to Europe and [stayed in self-exile]. Highsmith put in Ripley a lot of herself, her sympathy for Europe, her taste for Europe."
Rather than condemn Ripley's propensity for homicide, a bemused Highsmith seems to shrug about it in her novels. "I was very interested in this theme of Highsmith, the ability to tell a story without making a judgment about story or characters. Yes, it was a challenge!" Cavani said. "I'm very satisfied with what I accomplished. Consultants at the Patricia Highsmith foundation told me that this was the most 'Highsmithian' of all the film adaptations."
In Ripley's Game, Ripley is rich and married in Europe, then he manipulates a quiet, law-abiding shopkeeper, Jonathan (Dougray Scott), to become the assassin of a mobster. The book was adapted earlier by Germany's Wim Wenders as The American Friend (1977), with, as Ripley, an anarchic Dennis Hopper in a cowboy hat. "I saw the Wenders film when it came out, but I didn't like it very much," Cavani said. "I don't think Wenders quite centered on what Highsmith meant. He'd almost fallen in love with this cowboy character. It's a reflection of those years, the 1970s, German directors discovering American directors and writers."
Cavani is quick to praise two other Ripley adaptations, France's Purple Noon (1960), with Alain Delon, and the recent The Talented Mr. Ripley (2001) starring Matt Damon. "I love those two movies," Cavani said.
Her Ripley's Game came about when Ileen Maisel, a producer at Fine Line Features, sought Cavani out to direct it. Maisel was a major fan of The Night Porter and, meeting Cavani, she was pleased to discover that the Italian filmmaker was so familiar with Highsmith. Cavani: "I did the script with Charles McKeon, a British writer who worked with Monty Python. The screenplay was written and rewritten seven times, so there could be no improvisation.
"Ripley is a dramatic role, but the character needs intelligent irony. John Malkovich was my first choice, and Maisel agreed. For me, Malkovich is perfect. He'd also been perfect as Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons. I see the connection with Valmont, who is control of his actions but falls in love with his female victim. It's like Ripley's bond with Jonathan. Is he in love with Jonathan? I think, no. But there's a triggering moment, when he feels he caused Jonathan trouble and therefore has a responsibility to assist. Ripley thought he didn't have a conscience, but friendship pushed him."
But isn't Ripley also like Max, the eponymous Night Porter, suddenly swept up in love? "You are telling me now, but I'm not conscious of that," Cavani balked at my analogy. "It's been a long time for me not seeing The Night Porter. This is the first interview with an American journalist about Ripley."
(Boston Phoenix, December 2003)