Films I Love #54: Mr. Klein (Joseph Losey, 1976)

Joseph Losey's Mr. Klein, made in France during the director's long post-blacklist exile from the US, is a chilling (and chilly) parable about identity, fascism, exploitation and oppression. Set during World War II in occupied France, the film centers around the titular Robert Klein (Alain Delon), an art dealer who exploits the situation in his country by buying cheap paintings from fleeing Jews, who are mostly looking to get just enough money to escape the increasingly restrictive Nazi regulations. Klein is indifferent to those he exploits, caring only about his own luxurious life, until one day he receives a Jewish newspaper addressed to him. He realizes, soon enough, that there is another Robert Klein in Paris, a Jew disguising himself as a collaborationist Frenchman, and he becomes obsessed with ferreting out this other Klein, this mirror image alter-ego. This, in turn, attracts the attention of the Vichy police, who become suspicious of this Klein as well.

Losey's mise en scène is methodical and austere, evincing a cold distance that suits the abstract story of a man losing himself in a doppelganger he never quite meets. The multiple shots of Klein standing alone in a tightly wrapped overcoat and hat, isolated even in crowd shots, deliberately echo the hyper-cool image of Delon from his iconic role in Le samouraï. He wanders around, earnestly staring with his cold blue eyes, encountering various mysterious figures who fail to aid him in his search — with an impressive supporting cast populated with the likes of Jeanne Moreau, Juliet Berto, Francine Bergé, Michael Lonsdale and Rivette muse Hermine Karagheuz. The film's most stunning scene, however, is its first, a seeming non sequitur in which a doctor examines a naked female patient, clinically reciting various attributes that suggest an "inferior race." The cold horror and bureaucratic precision of this scene sets the tone for the remainder of the film, immediately establishing Klein's milieu as one in which human beings are treated like animals, their teeth examined like racehorses — an association recalled in the next scene, when Klein's pampered mistress examines her own teeth while applying lipstick. Losey's unforgettable film is concerned with this matter-of-fact horror, and with the oblivious mindset that ignores such things, insisting that everything is normal, everything is OK, even in the face of tremendous evidence to the contrary.