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adaptation ripley's game
Adapted from the third of Patricia Highsmith's five novels about the suavely murderous American expatriate Tom Ripley, Ripley's Game represents an inspired union of author and interpreters. The Ripley books are an addictive blend of extreme moral ambiguity, uncanny atmosphere, dark humor, and unrelenting tension.
Ripley's Game is classic Highsmith, with a story that finds Ripley successfully orchestrating the transformation of an ordinary man into a hired killer. Highsmith's mordant vision is nimbly translated to the screen by Italian filmmaker Liliana Cavani, one of cinema's most artful tellers of disquieting tales. To portray Ripley, Cavani has called upon another American original, John Malkovich, an actor whose talent and intelligence - not to mention wit and charisma - are quite a match for Ripley's own.
Ripley's Game is the fourth Ripley adaptation to reach the screen. The first novel in the series, The Talented Mr. Ripley, has been adapted twice, first by Réné Clément in 1961 as Plein Soleil (Purple Noon), and again in 1999 by Anthony Minghella under its original title. Ripley's Game was filmed in 1978 as The American Friend by German filmmaker Wim Wenders.
American producer Ileen Maisel is a great fan of Highsmith's work and acquired the rights to Ripley's Game in 1998. She explains that she was not only drawn to the novel's moral complexity; she was deeply intrigued by the man Ripley had become since his first appearance in The Talented Mr. Ripley. "In The Talented Mr. Ripley, all he does is kill because someone gets in his way. In Ripley Underwater he kills because someone gets in his way. But that's not who he is Ripley's Game," Maisel notes. "He's a more interesting character. Ripley has grown up in this book and is now successful. In his own words, he 'detests murder unless it is absolutely necessary.' He is a man who has his own morality. Though you might think he's completely amoral or immoral, he's not."
It was Maisel who came up with the idea of approaching Liliana Cavani to direct. One of Italy's leading filmmakers, Cavani is best known to international audiences for her controversial 1974 drama The Night Porter, a disturbing look at Nazism that starred Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde. The film was an unflinching exploration of the illogical, deeply emotional relationship between a concentration camp survivor and her former Nazi captor/lover. But The Night Porter wasn't the only film that impressed Maisel and her producing partner Simon Bosanquet. Cavani's later films, such as 1993's Where Are You? I'm Here (Dove siete? Io sono qui), possessed the thematic and stylistic richness that Ripley's Game demanded. Comments Bosanquet, "We knew from looking at her recent material that Liliana would be the right director for this film. She took to the material with a passion."
As it happened, Cavani is also a longtime admirer of Highsmith's work and over the years has read her entire output. She believes that Highsmith's writing, with its psychological precision, transcends the confines of genre and belongs to the category of literature. "You can't define Patricia Highsmith's style as thriller or suspense," the filmmaker asserts. "She's a very big writer, period. She searches the human mind in a extraordinarily intelligent way and with an ironic sense of humor."
Highsmith's work was fueled by the conviction that, under certain circumstances each of us is capable of transgressions we would never dream possible. It's a belief that Cavani shares, and which was the central theme of The Night Porter, as well. "At the time I made that film, what I maintained was far from a mainstream idea," Cavani recalls. "I was attacked on all fronts for it. But since then lots of things have come out that support this notion."
In Ripley's Game, an ordinary man who is certain he could never kill, in fact, does kill. Could that man be any member of the audience? Notes Cavani, "It's easy to say, 'I could never be a killer' in the absence of that particular circumstance or set of circumstances that would alter the picture. But actually, when that circumstance arises and people have to make a choice, they behave differently than they say they will. So a great deal of ambiguity surrounds such a possibility, and Highsmith is supremely clever in creating this atmosphere of ambiguity. All this is very interesting to me, so when Ileen approached me about Ripley's Game I immediately took her up on it."
Highsmith wrote 'Ripley's Game' as a contemporary novel in 1974, and the filmmakers decided early on that their filmed version should also be contemporary. Any changes had to be consistent with the tone of Highsmith's story, Simon Bosanquet stresses. "We went back to the book and tried to depict what we thought Highsmith would want," he says. "Liliana had many interesting ideas on how to adapt the novel from the 1970s to the present day." For example, while the Italian mafia was encroaching on Reeves' turf in 1974, the Russian mafia seemed a more likely threat in the evolving landscape of post-Communist Berlin.
Ripley himself was given a new home, as the story's setting moved from France to Italy's Veneto region, which lies inland from Venice. Explains Cavani, "Highsmith was a bit like Ripley in that she was an American living in Europe. She set her book in Fontainebleau, outside Paris, because in the 1950s France was in vogue among foreigners. But nowadays, I think Italy is more in.'"
In Ripley's Game, Tom Ripley has achieved the upper class European lifestyle of beauty and elegance that captivated him in his youth. He savors that life to the utmost: the art, architecture and music; the food, scenery and relaxed pace. Ripley's attention to detail defines his every action, from restoring the perfect antique harpsichord for his wife Luisa, to searching out the largest, most fragrant black truffle in town.
In collaborating on the film's script with screenwriter Charles McKeown (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), Liliana Cavani focused hard on Ripley's complex and mercurial character. "I made a deep study of Ripley's personality, because it's the basis of the story," the filmmaker explains. Ripley has reinvented himself as the gracious and cultivated expatriate landowner, but he retains certain traits from his younger, edgier days. It is that Ripley - "spontaneous, audacious and very proud," in Cavani's description - who comes to the fore when he overhears Jonathan's cutting remark. "Jonathan pokes Ripley in the nature of what he has become, deriding him in a mean way that Ripley just can't take. But Ripley is a free spirit and he doesn't back away from anything. Of course, Jonathan couldn't imagine that he was wounding a man like Ripley," the filmmaker adds.
John Malkovich, who plays Ripley, describes the sequence of events with laconic, Ripley-esque logic. "Jonathan offends Ripley; he insults Ripley's taste. So Ripley decides to single him out to Reeves as the person who should be hired to kill this man in Berlin."
Dougray Scott portrays Ripley's victim, an English expatriate who is dying of leukemia and ekes out a thin living as a picture framer. "He's kind of a fragile character," Scott remarks.
"The best thing that's happened to him in his life so far is that he's met his wife. In his careful kind of way, he's happy in this small Italian town. Then he meets Tom Ripley. And he's given a chance to become part of that very exclusive club of people who kill."
The suspense of Ripley's Game is driven not by intricate plot machinations, but rather by the intriguing machinations of character and personality. As Cavani points out, "Normally suspense answers the question, what's going to happen? But here, the question is: how are the characters going to react? That's what is really fascinating."
Malkovich agrees. "This is not an everyday thriller full of action but no story. It asks an interesting question about the nature of personality and morality. I think most people would do most things given the circumstances," the actor reflects. "Some people are more easily influenced than others depending on their life experiences."
Ripley's Game depicts the character's intersecting relationships with economy and a keen eye for ambiguity. There is a palpable tension between Ripley and his former protégée Reeves, played by Ray Winstone. Ripley has cheated Reeves out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, but this may not be the sole source of their unspoken enmity. Actor Ray Winstone calls Reeves "a small-time villain who learned his trade from Ripley. Ripley was his mentor, and there are maybe sexual undercurrents going on between the two. You never quite work it out and that's part of the great complexity of their relationship."
Ripley's relationship with his wife Luisa, the gifted harpsichordist played by Italian actress Chiara Caselli, is also rather enigmatic. In Malkovich's estimation, "It's a quite complicit relationship, quite complex and strange. He doesn't seem to miss her when she goes off for months at a time, but they have a good rapport and do seem to have a sexual life."
The relationship at the center of Ripley's Game is the one between Ripley and Jonathan. Over the course of the film, enmity is supplanted by a strange and genuinely solicitous friendship. While a shared danger contributes to their camaraderie, Ripley's experiment has bound them in other ways, too. The Jonathan who is rescued by Ripley on the Berlin-Düsseldorf express is not the same man who mocked Ripley's taste to a group of partygoers. Jonathan has met a part of himself he never new existed. No longer is he simply the man dying of leukemia, dragged down by self-pity. With the murder in the Berlin Zoo, Cavani reflects, "It's as if Jonathan has discovered that he's daring; after many years, he feels almost as if he's freed from his disease in that moment."
Who to thank? Ripley, who has evolved from unseen tormentor to ally and protector. To Cavani, this shift reveals yet another part of Ripley's complex, ambiguous personality. "Even though Ripley is an arrogant and insolent person, he's got a human depth," the filmmaker declares. "He observes his experiment as it unfolds and becomes involved from a human perspective. Slowly, the feelings that inspired him to devise this game collapse, and he develops the desire of getting the Englishman out of the game. And so, from a cynical game, it's transformed into a human game."
To be sure, that game is not without its darkly comic moments. The bathroom assassinations on the Berlin-Düsseldorf train blend nail-biting tension with macabre slapstick. The discovery of Reeves' body, stuffed into the trunk of car, is the occasion for some gallows humor between Ripley and Jonathan. Observes Malkovich, "These are very lifelike people in rather bizarre, sometimes almost farcical situations. As Jonathan says, this ordinary person has suddenly become the most wanted serial killer in Europe."
Ripley brings a certain wit to even the grisliest situations, and is rarely at a loss for the dry bon mot. In fact, Ripley's ironic humor is defining as his discriminating taste in art, music and food. It is a typically elegant expression of who he is. "Ripley is basically a winner, but he doesn't brag about it," Cavani remarks. "The irony is that the humor is a manifestation of the way he despises the world, yet it's what makes him likeable."
Or, rather, humor is one of the things that make Ripley - sophisticated, manipulative, charming, cultivated, witty, murderous Ripley - likeable. "I think Ripley is the character we all want to hate but end up adoring and wanting to spend time with," producer Maisel comments. "He does things and behaves in a way that most people don't have the courage for. Or their morality stops them. But through Ripley they can live vicariously."
As the axis on which Ripley's Game turns, the filmmakers knew that much rested on their choice of Ripley. When a mutual friend suggested John Malkovich to Ileen Maisel, the producer leapt on the idea, recalling the actor's brilliant performance in Dangerous Liaisons. "Ripley is sort of a contemporary variation of Valmont: subtle, interesting, challenging, sexual, sensual," Maisel smiles. "Demented."
As it happened, Malkovich knew the character well, having read the entire Ripley series over a decade ago when a former partner was pursuing the rights to The Talented Mr. Ripley. The project didn't come to fruition, but Ripley stayed with him. "Ripley is an incredibly modern character and quite unique," Malkovich states. "The thing I like most about the character is that it's someone constantly being reborn. So the character who starts out in the first book being a certain way, from a certain place, in a particular set of circumstances - has become a completely different person by the end of the series. I find that very lifelike."
Other elements of Ripley's psychology also intrigued him. "Ripley did such terrible things but he never seemed to think they were all that bad," Malkovich notes. "The fascinating thing about Ripley is his contentment about who he is. He's not a tortured soul."
Ripley's Game was shot on location in Asolo and Padua in northern Italy and in Berlin, with studio sequences completed at Cinecitta in Rome. Cavani had suggested Asolo where the great Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio built several private residences. Explains the filmmaker, "For me, the Veneto had two advantages. Not only has it been little exploited for cinema purposes, it's precisely the part of Italy that our modern Ripley would be drawn to. With his upwardly mobile social ambition, what would attract him more than the notion of living in a Palladian villa?"
Production designer Francesco Frigeri was given the key task of securing a Palladian villa to serve as Ripley's home. His search led him to the Villa Emo in Fanzolo, built around 1560 and designed by the fabled architect himself. "It's one of twenty that Palladio actually had built on his own designs rather than the many others built in the manner of Palladio," explains Frigeri. The Villa Emo is one of Palladio's finest achievements. The architect designed the villa to blend into the surrounding landscape, resulting in an aesthetically superb construction. The main building features a traditional recessed loggia, above which is displayed the Emo family's coat of arms. Frescoes by artist Giovanni Battista Zelotti adorn the villa's interior walls. A building that was part of the original servants' quarters proved to be the perfect location for the Trevanny's humble cottage.
Ripley's Game reunites Cavani with director of photography Alfio Contini, who also shot The Night Porter. Contini often shot Malkovich half in light and half in darkness, emphasizing Ripley's mystery and double nature. "I think of him as someone who loves life but is an associate of death," Contini comments. Rather than simply aim to create a state of anxiety, he strives to shed light on "the psychological makeup of the characters, the humanity of the people in the story, however ambiguous they may be."
The ambiguity of Ripley's Game can be felt even in the film's locations. After all, some of the film's most horrifying scenes unfold in settings that are little short of magnificent. But that, Cavani points out, is part and parcel of Patricia Highsmith's unique sensibility. "I wanted to respect Highsmith's character personalities. Ripley is an American who loves living in Europe because he's attracted by the beauty of the art and the scenery. So even the most disturbing scenes take place, most of them, in a beautiful context. Why not? I mean, murders don't happen only in the underground and in the middle of garbage."