This Summer We’re Channelling: Jane Fonda in “Les félins”

Jane Fonda and Alain Delon in the set of “Les félins”, 1964
Cité Films, Compagnie Internationale de Productions Cinématographiques


This Summer We’re Channelling: a recurring seasonal series
in the journal that celebrates both style in film and summertime.

At the 4th of July party that Jane Fonda threw in 1965 at her Malibu home that she had recently rented with her future husband, Roger Vadim, the old Hollywood and the new Hollywood came face to face for the very first time. Or at least it was one of the first occasions when the old guard (the guest list included names such as William Wyler, Gene Kelly, Darryl Zanuck, Lauren Bacall, Sam Spiegel, Henry Fonda) met with the will-be protagonists of the American New Wave (Warren Beatty, Tuesday Weld, Jean Seberg, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda), as both groups were barely starting to realise that things in Hollywood were about to change.

In the book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, Mark Harris notes that “few people were better suited to broker a summer meeting between the Hollywood establishment and its upstarts than Jane Fonda, who even in 1965 had a foot in both worlds.” That may be true, but that probably had less to do with the fact that she was cinema royalty and more to do with the fact that she wanted to establish her own identity and to establish herself as an actor on her own terms, cinema royalty or not. “My father was a loner. He was not a Hollywood insider and he never talked about the business with us, so I never learned or understood that this business is built on relationships,” she was explaining in a Hollywood Reporter interview.

At that time in 1965, she had not yet become involved in political activism, but her views had already started to spread beyond her second-generation Hollywood movie actor status, as she had taken up work in France and life in Paris was exposing her to a different kind of filmmaking, at the height of the nouvelle vague. Moreover, she became friends with Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, which awakened her political consciousness about the war in Vietnam. Fonda was about to become increasingly radical and to start to perceive her role in Hollywood differently.

When François Truffaut was approached by Robert Benton and David Newman with their script for Bonnie and Clyde and he was considering directing the film, he said: “Now there would be an interesting part for Jane Fonda…Maybe…” When Truffaut dropped out, Fonda was still one of the names considered for the part, by Warren Beatty, who got the rights to produce it, included. The film however took years to get funding and a director and when Arthur Penn finally accepted the job, he said: “We talked about Jane Fonda, but she seemed too sophisticated.” After Penn and Brando and Fonda did The Chase together, her fame had started to take off, which worked against her regarding Bonnie and Clyde. “I didn’t want a movie star.” The part of Bonnie, as we all know, went to Faye Dunaway and the rest is movie history.

Jane Fonda in “Les félins”, 1964 | Cité Films, Compagnie Internationale de Productions Cinématographiques

Jane Fonda however would be more than a movie star and she would be a human rights crusader when very few were and when being an activist wasn’t a “thing” or self-congratulatory. In 1978, Jane Fonda came to the Cannes Film Festival to champion Hal Ashby’s Coming Home. She was photographed by the Traverso family, the famous family of photographers who have documented the festival for decades, and whose work was published in the book Cannes Cinema: A visual history of the world’s greatest film festival. The book also captures one of the most apt descriptions of Jane: “Her unequivocal opinions against the war and in favour of the feminist movement were well known. But her appeal lay above all in her elegance and her smile. She had the authenticity of an actress completely in control of her art.”

Her roles in Coming Home (1978) and in arguably her greatest achievement, Klute (1971), would prove her acting virtuosity and her ability to register so many ranges and contradictions on camera. Klute was an important film on another level as well. It was a film that portrayed uncomfortably well the post-Vietnam/Watergate sensibilities of the 1970s and an oppressive atmosphere, as the viewers were made aware that everything and everyone was under surveillance. Interestingly enough, Fonda recalls how she told Pakula that maybe Faye Dunaway might be more appropriate for the role: “After spending a week with prostitutes, I asked Alan Pakula to let me out of my contract. I said, ‘I can’t do it, hire Faye Dunaway. I can’t do it.’ And then I figured out a way to get into it – but I didn’t think I could do it.”

“Jane Fonda dominates the film from her first to her last appearance. In a brilliant performance that almost bursts the confines of the character she plays, she combines subtle expressiveness with intelligence and feminine self-assurance. Yet she also shows the suffering and uncertainty of a lonely human being,” wrote Stuttgarter Zeitung.

But before Klute and other politically-charged American productions, Fonda lived for six years in France, after she accepted the role in René Clément’s film Les félins (1964), starring opposite Alain Delon. In her autobiography, My Life So Far, Fonda recalls how “France seemed to be in the cards. French director René Clément flew to Los Angeles to pitch me a film idea that would co-star Alain Delon… I agreed. I liked the idea of putting an ocean between me, Hollywood and my father’s long shadow.”

René Clément’s classic thriller finds Alain Delon, as Marc, trapped in the toils of a wealthy widow, Barbara (Lola Albright), and her niece, Melinda (Jane Fonda), after he finds shelter in their lavish home as he was trying to escape his pursuers after he had made the mistake of seducing the wife of an American gangster. Once in their chateau, Marc realises he is the pawn in another plot, driven by two women this time, and there is little but one thing that he can do about it. Alain Delon was at the height of his sullen beauty and sartorial elegance in the 1960s, and in this film, René Clément uses Delon’s magnetic, unattainable and untamable screen presence a little differently than in Plein soleil. The first, and best, adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (Highsmith described the film as “very beautiful to the eye and interesting for the intellect”) is a psychological thriller that explores the darkness of the human soul and this exploration is all the more gripping as Delon’s Ripley is cool, unruffled and elegant, conscious of his superiority and seductive power, the opposite of Matt Damon’s insecure and plain Ripley in Anthony Minghella’s film.

At a retrospective on Alain Delon’s films in the 1990s at the Cinémathèque française, Jack Lang introduced Delon: “Young wolf, feline, thoroughbred … At barely twenty, Delon burst into the screen untamed, with neither stage nor screen training, only his amazing actor’s instinct, which from the very first take ushered him into his natural environment.” It emphasised two of his qualities, the natural and the untamable, both as actor and as character, is concluded in the book The Trouble with Men: Masculinity in European and Hollywood Cinema, likening Delon’s movement and acting style to an untrained naturalism based on intuition, animal grace and power. That is one more time evident in Les félins (so appropriately named).

Jane Fonda and Alain Delon in the set of “Les félins”, 1964
Cité Films, Compagnie Internationale de Productions Cinématographiques

Only in this one, as opposed to Plein soleil, where the female character, Marge, is so pale and weak, Delon has two strong female characters besides him, the enigmatic Barbara and especially Fonda’s Melinda, radiating a very individualistic onscreen presence herself, dominant, unabashedly attractive and cool, perfectly at ease with playing and being played – Delon’s character even compares her to a cat at one point. The themes of narcissism, deceit, envy and sheer immorality are resumed in Les félins to some extent, on the backdrop of beautiful locals and beautiful protagonists, but Clément doesn’t use the location again to decontextualise one of the conventions of the crime genre. The wide open, gold tinted Mediterranean settings that invite the viewer in in Plein soleil are replaced by a confined, claustrophobic place: grand, sumptuous, but a trap nonetheless, a labyrinth of secret passageways, slide panels and mirrored walls. Yes, the mirror again (only differently used than in Plein soleil), because Clément concentrates on the sensual and deceptive allure of beautiful objects (people included). But Delon doesn’t have the superior hand anymore. He is already entrapped and isolated and only has his sexual power to buy him time.

It is Jane Fonda who steals the scene in this film. Her performance veers between diffident behaviour and unrepressed provocation, as she jumps from Pierre Balmain elegant dresses into swimsuits and men’s oversized shirts. In the presence of Fonda, Delon’s persona is much more quietly felt, just like his one suit quietly compliments the more extensive wardrobe that Jane has at her disposal. She looks incredibly good in the timeless Balmain sheath dresses or in the stunning white waist-cinching full-skirted dress, but so perfectly at ease in the more casual clothes, jeans, t-shirts, capri pants, summer shirts and strappy sandals. But a polished surface can conceal darker things, hidden thoughts, social goals. And simple clothes, fresh and uninhibited, certainly makes sense for the time and setting.

Les félins didn’t get much acclaim when it was released and its reputation has not gained much in time and I believe that is a disservice brought to it by those film critics who are afraid to give in the joy of watching a film because they might lose their credentials of “serious” critics, those critics who appear interested only in the intellectual side of films. Here is what Michael Atkinson of Village Voice and Sight & Sound, one of the few advocates of the film, said: “There’s not much that’s earth-shaking about Joy House” (ed. note: the uninspired English title of the film), “except perhaps Lalo Schifrin’s pre-Jerry Goldsmith score. But it’s a movie in a way movies haven’t been in a long time: graceful, relaxed, fun-loving, unpretentious. What you get is Alain Delon in his best persona — a ne’er-do-well playboy flitting around the Mediterranean looking for cash and ass, not unlike his Tom Ripley in Clement’s Purple Noon four years earlier… It’s the kind of American pulp French filmmakers have always loved: the kind in which not one character has an iota of honesty or morality to them. This is my idea of escapism, hanging in an absurd vacation-France inhabited by nuns and sex kittens, digging the redoubtable chemistry between Fonda and Delon (honestly, Fonda’s so game and sexy here she’d muster chemistry with Fernandel), enjoying the stars’ indulgent wallow in the Riviera as I’m also casually and effortlessly following the not-too-fast narrative without the benefit of a single optical effect or a single moment where the film insists on “making” me “feel” the action.”

That just seems like the right kind of mood for the summer.

Editorial sources: Pictures at a Revolution, by Mark Harris / My Life So Far by Jane Fonda / The Trouble with Men: Masculinity in European and Hollywood Cinema, by Phil Powrie, Ann Davies, Bruce Babington / Cannes Cinema: A visual history of the world’s greatest film festival

More stories: This Summer We’re Channelling: Faye Dunaway in “Bonnie and Clyde” / This Summer We’re Channelling: Juliette Binoche in “Certified Copy” / This Summer We’re Channelling: Léa Seydoux and Daniel Craig in “Spectre”

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