Mr. Klein July 9, 2021
2 Hrs., 3 Mins.
r. Klein (1976), American director Joseph Losey’s first French-language movie, is a nightmarish not-quite-thriller set in 1942 Paris. It stars Alain Delon as the title character — an apparently politically neutral art dealer at the height of his success. Klein, of late, has seen an upsurge in Jewish clients willing to sell to him at high prices cherished artwork in order to flee the Nazi-occupied
country. Klein, a gentile Roman Catholic, is compassionate to these clients but only to a point — he’s rarely thinking much beyond how he can take advantage of a precarious situation. That changes shortly into Mr. Klein, when, out of nowhere, a prominent Jewish newspaper begins appearing at his doorstep.
Worried about being falsely identified in a fraught environment, Klein
immediately reports the mishap to the paper’s editor-in-chief — a move that leads only to more conflict. Klein learns that there is actually another Robert Klein living in the area, and that that Klein is Jewish and potentially part of a resistance group. He becomes progressively preoccupied not just by who, exactly, the other Robert Klein is — it’s punishingly hard to track him down, as several trips to his empty apartment show — but also the “why” behind this case of mistaken identity. Has the other Klein intentionally forwarded the art dealer his newspaper subscriptions and other mail as a way to evade authorities? Or is it pure coincidence? Delon, pale and slightly worn since his days in the 1950s and ‘60s as an intimidatingly beautiful sex symbol, is smartly cast in Mr. Klein
as a man whose hardening by wealth and then his fears of arrest are suggested in just how he looks and carries himself.
The movie’s cautious pace and lightly surreal touches make us also prone to wondering if there are not two Mr. Kleins at all, with our art dealer perhaps an unreliable narrator who has been walking us for most of the movie through self-delusion. The film, in several reviews, has been described as Kafkaesque, because of how slippery identity feels and how imminent threat is in its purview. Most of Mr. Klein takes place in the thick of a wobbly investigation by its title character, shot in a muted style by cinematographer Gerry Fisher that suggests it could go on forever, no answers found and doom set to last. Jeanne Moreau (wonderfully icy as the second Klein’s elegant mistress), Michael Lonsdale, Suzanne Flon, Juliet Berto, and others have memorable turns as people either in the art dealer’s upper-class milieu or part of the other Klein’s mysterious world. No one can entirely be trusted.
Mr. Klein, which chillingly climaxes with the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup, tends to be cryptic — not so much interested in being a terse thriller about mistaken identity (which would unquestionably require it tighten its prolonged running time and perhaps select a less charged subject matter) as it is in keeping us immersed in a terrifying, and also historically accurate, landscape where surveillance is upped, threat is omnipresent, and where one’s identity is constantly scrutinized. (Later, Losey, a leftist filmmaker who was no stranger to himself being targeted on account of his ideologies, would say that his experience contending with the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s informed his generation of Mr. Klein’s evocative hopelessness.)
That Klein’s “double” possesses the very identity he thought he could not only maintain a distance from but also take advantage of feels karmic. Klein doesn’t especially care about what’s happening to the Jewish community until he is himself imperiled by the forces targeting them and other vulnerable groups. But the movie isn’t self-satisfied about — doesn’t find any dark humorousness in — this irony. The increasing flimsiness of Klein’s certainty in his identity parallels the escalating insecurity around him, with all coming to a head with that aforementioned mass arrest of nearly 13,200 Jewish people in Paris alone. Mr. Klein is, on one hand, a perceptive drama about the harms of complicity, and, on the other, an intriguingly oblique horror movie about the senselessness of evil, ingeniously using a mystery as its point of entry and getting us to a point where something being “solved” feels trivial. A