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Well, he was an idol of cinema. Idols, though, can crumble and fall, and I keep thinking about how, early in his career, Delon was repeatedly likened to James Dean, a comparison that was probably dreamed up by a flack looking for an easy way to publicize a client. Delon and Dean are very different, of course, including in their performance styles and screen presence, but there are moments — when the lighting and angle are just so and the camera lingers on their faces — when each man’s looks create a strange disturbance in the air. They don’t simply attract your attention, they command and trouble your gaze, at times while also drawing attention away from other performers and the movie itself.

For much of his career, which has had more peaks and some wincing lows, Delon generated equally excited attention for his offscreen life, which was pockmarked by rumors, scandals and sometimes great outrage. He was questioned in the 1968 murder of Stefan Markovic. That scandal faded, yet more followed. Delon has admitted to slapping a woman, expressed homophobic views and voiced support for France’s far-right party, all of which generated protest and headlines in 2019 when the Cannes Film Festival announced that it would give him a lifetime achievement award. The festival ignored its critics; Delon took home his prize.

Recently, news outlets reported that Delon, who’s in poor health and whose children have been squabbling in public about his care, was placed under legal guardianship. Onscreen, actors exist in a kind of bewitching state of suspended animation, their youth and beauty eternally fixed. Dean’s accidental death at 24 in 1955 rendered him forever young offscreen. Delon, of course, lived. He continued to work, to star and produce, to seduce and charm until he didn’t, and his gradual, increasingly agonizingly painful fade-out began. Unlike Dean, who in dying young escaped the mistakes and indignities that older age might have brought him, Delon continued to prove that despite all of our rapture, he was all too human.

Delon
Through April 18 at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, Greenwich Village, filmforum.org.

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