Published on October 19th, 2018 | by Christopher Cipollini0
Alain Delon: French New Wave’s Heartthrob Villain
No man in cinema has perfectly mirrored or emulated the style and iconography of French film star Alain Delon. With his simple, yet immaculately stylized black suits, he along with Brigitte Bardot, were the embodiments of the French New Wave.
Actors create the aspects of dark and light when it comes to human personalities. It could be masculine or feminine, flowery or frolicsome, or something in between. Delon was born Alain Fabian Maurice Marcel Delon on November 8, 1935 in Sceaux, Seine (now Hauts-de-Seine) France, of French, Italian, and German ancestraldescent.
His parents divorced when he was four. They both remarried other partners. As an adolescent, the future film star was a rebellious student. In spite of his mischievous behavior, his teachers noticed he excelled in religious studies and encouraged him to pursue a life in the priesthood. His poor behavior caused his expulsion from several schools. At the age of 14, he worked in his stepfather’s butcher shop never to return to another school to complete his education.
Delon had an emotionally strained relationship with his parents. They gave him away to foster parents, but when they died, he was returned to his parents. At age 17, his parents enlisted him in the French Navy, which thrust him into the arms of the Indochina War. During his brief military service, he was imprisoned for his unruly behavior. He was quoted in the New Straits Times of saying, “all I had was my face,”after he was released from prison.
After his stint in the military and a string of odd jobs, he signed a contract with American talent scout David O. Selznick. However, during that time French director Yves Allégret convinced Delon to make his film debut in a French feature he was directing, Senda Woman When the Devil Fails (1957). Selznick released Delon from the contract to make the movie. Delon was a sensation from his first screen role.
He embodied the joie de vivre and zest of the Parisian youth. His seductive quality was akin to Latin lovers of the twenties, tinged with an urban and street-smart chic. He excelled in the role of anti-hero, elegant yet understated, rough and ready- a persona he gleaned from a tense childhood. His sartorial stylings, soul catching glances, and piercing eyes mirrored Italian actor Rudolph Valentino. In film, he was the deviant solider, the assassin, the rebel, the fallen angel, or the ideal delinquent, as seen in such films as The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) and Le Samouraï (1967), a sun-tinged crime drama, all pistols, and roses. Off-screen, Delon seldom stepped out of what was becoming a fashionable characteristic style of tailored clothes.
Delon’s screen aesthetic is one of two poles. On one side, he is the amorous youth, lost in a series of romantic entanglements with the likes of Marie Laforêt, Jane Fonda, and Brigitte Bardot, from which he and Bardot would cultivate a lifelong kinship. On the other side, he was the new wave dark prince, chic and dangerous.
He shrewdly knew how to construct visual poetry with his image, and he used this ability to its fullest in what may be seen in his greatest feature, Purple Noon (1960).Itpresented a psychological portrait of a murderous young cynic who attempts to take on the identity of his victim, based on the novel, and later the film, The Talented Mr. Ripley. With an angelic face, he zealously masks an evil soul for whom moviegoers swoon as they shamelessly root for the antagonist. He follows this formula in other iconic roles, such as the crime drama, Borsalino (1970), set in 1930s Marseille, and Spirits of the Dead (1968), an all-star anthology directed by Roger Vadim in which Delon plays a cruel sadistic boarding student.
Delon’s career in America never had quite the same allure as it did in France, in spite of years of efforts and being considered for several English speaking roles, including Night of the Iguanaand T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. His success in Europe, however, continued unabated. In the end, he resigned himself to European directors.
He formed two production companies in the 60s: Delbeau Productions and Adel Film. With these two companies, he was able to add producer and director to his credit list. He directed his first feature, Pour la Peau d’un Flic in 1981.
In 1968, during the production of The Swimming Pool (1969), Delon became the subject of an investigation. His former bodyguard, Stevan Marković,was found dead in a public dumpster on the outskirts of Paris. Marković wrote a letter to his bother stating that if anything tragic happened to him that Delon and his friends had a hand in it. Marković held decadentsex parties, invited celebrities, and other public figures to his home. He installed cameras throughout the house, including the bedrooms. It’s rumored that he possessed compromising photos of his attendees, which included Delon. The most scandalous photos were of President Georges Pompidou’s wife. The prosecution found no evidence linking Delon to Marković’smurder. The French press called it the “Marković affair” and the probe lefta small blight on Delon’s public appeal. The case remains unsolved.
The actor maintained a steady career and became a father to four children. An affair with Nico (born Christa Päffgen), lead to his first son Christian Aaron Päffgenwhile he was engaged to actress Romy Schneider. Delon denied that Christian was his; however, Delon’s mother adopted Christian making him Delon’s stepbrother. His second child, Anthony, mothered by actress Nathalie Barthélemy who he married in 1964, and divorced in 1969. Anthony followed in his father’s footsteps and became an actor. He later fathered two more children with Rosalie van Breemen: Anouchka Delon and Alain-Fabien Delon.
After a series of international films, the actor began to focus more on business ventures. In 1970, he became a boxing match organizer. He also invested wisely in tailored attire and jewelry. The handsome actor became a marketable commodity. In 1978, he created his brand, Alain Delon Diffusion SA, selling clothes, watches, perfumes, colognes, cognac andchampagne.
Delon maintained steady work in the eighties, starring in The Passage (1986), Let Sleeping Cops Lie (1988) as well as Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave (1990). After a few box office disappointments, Delon stepped away from films until the mid-2000s when he returned in the mini-series Fabio Montale. In 2017, when Delon turned 81, he announced his retirement from acting, but before doing so he had committed to performing in one last film with co-star Juliette Binoche in The Empty Houseand once last play, The Twilight of a Holy Monster.
After six decades of starring in film and television, the actor continues to make hearts decades younger flutter. Delon’s fans have looked beyond this sharp dressed heartthrob playing baby-faced villains. They see an image of an indelible era in filmmaking.
- New Wave (Nouvelle Vague)(1990)
- Let Sleeping Cops Lie (1988) (Ne réveillez pas un flic qui dort )
- The Passage (1986) (Le Passage )
- Fabio Montale (mini-series)
- The Empty House (La Maison Vide )
- Send a Woman When the Devil Fails (Quand la femme s’en mêle) (1957)
- The Swimming Pool (La Piscine) (1969)
- Purple Moon (Plein soleil) (1960)
- Le Samouraï (1967) (Le Samouraï)
- Borsalino (1970)
- Spirits of the Dead (1968) (Histoires Extraordinaires)
- Pour la Peau d’un Flic (1981)
This article was translated in French by Anne-Cécile Baer Porter.