While director Joseph Losey was no stranger to obscurity, some of his films inspire even more head scratching than others. Most are not blatantly bad; they just seem to be about something other than the obvious. Even odder, often the confusion results from seemingly clear intentions that on balance do not quite make sense.
The title of The Assassination of Trotsky (Richard Burton) seems to offer a clear subject, a likely theme (political violence) and a serious tone. And indeed, we see the events leading up to Trotsky’s death, there are plenty of political references and the tone is glum to the point of solemn. So why should it be that when the moment of truth comes, and Trotsky howls in agony like a slaughtered animal we’re not quite sure how to react?
Part of the problem is seemingly deliberate, for Losey and scenarist Nicholas Mosley choose to focus on the assassin, Ramón Mercader (Alain Delon), rather than Trotsky. Having made that choice, however, Mercader’s desire to prove himself a dedicated Stalinist remains murky to the point of opaque. The emphasis prevents the film from becoming a competition between declamatory political slogans, but it turns the “story” into a lengthy pause between parentheses, delaying, rather than explaining the denouement.
The central political puzzle of Trotsky’s death—why did Stalin wait so long before eliminating his chief rival and opponent?—is never addressed, much less explained. Thus Assassination turns historical dramatization into psychological mystery, but one without a core. The result is thick fog rather than insight because Mercader seems more confused than committed, and Delon struggles to do much with him.
In compensation, Losey exercises his specialty, lush, slow, sexually charged atmosphere that oozes around the characters like molasses. The film reaches a high point in the gardens of Xochimilco, where Mercader and his girlfriend Gita (Romy Schneider) float in languorous abandon under a metallic sun. The sequence is particularly welcome after an earlier, gruesomely explicit bullfight, but the tingling eroticism tells us nothing about Mercader’s motivation. With Delon’s sunglasses and perfect tailoring (every assassin should be so handsomely turned out), the trip to the gardens tantalizes with inappropriate chic, as if Mercader wants to kill Trotsky to assure more panache than anyone else.
If that seems like a trivialization, it nonetheless describes what is most fully realized in Assassination of Trotsky. When focused on the look and feel of events, the film is more richly suggestive and tempting than a Club Med commercial. But the “suggestions” seem to point to something other than the death of Trotsky, the pros and cons of Stalinism or the psychology of a true believer. Just what that “something” might be, though, can be found only in the power of the indeterminate surfaces to make that suggestion, like turning a mirror on to another mirror. The result is style receding into infinity, spiced with a dash of brutality à la mode.