The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: February 24 - March 2, 2000

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Movies to the Max

The MFA's Ophuls retrospective defines film

by Chris Fujiwara

"NINE FILMS BY MAX OPHULS," At the Museum of Fine Arts, March 2 through 18.

Max Ophuls's films Everyone who's in love with movies loves Max Ophuls. Detractors can be found for almost any other director, from Bergman and Fellini to Hitchcock and Hawks, but about the greatness of Ophuls -- and, more important, about the fact that his greatness has to do with the essence of film -- everyone agrees. Yet for some reason Ophuls's work is rarely shown and is often missing from the honor rolls that are meant to assuage our society's guilt for having banished masterpieces to archives. The MFA's retrospective "Nine Films by Max Ophuls" reaffirms a magnificence that seemed lost.

Born in Germany in 1902, Ophuls fled to France in 1933 and to the United States in 1940; he returned to France in 1950 to make his four last and greatest films there before dying of a heart attack, in 1957. His works in all three countries have the same preoccupations: theater and spectacle, music, the past, memory, and the tension between social roles and self-consciousness in the lives of women and idealists.

Above all, Ophuls's films have style. The word "stylist" is sometimes used to suggest a skillful decorator who applies pretty touches to cover up an absence of meaning. Ophuls's style, on the contrary, creates meaning. His camera sways, dances, follows people between rooms and up and down staircases. Over the course of a single shot it picks up speed and slows down, follows an actress insistently and then lightly lets her go. You pass through more rhythms, tempos, moods, and textures in any five minutes of La ronde (1950; March 3 at 6 p.m.) or Le plaisir (1952; March 10 at 6 p.m. and March 11 at 1:40 p.m.) than you would experience during an entire season of religious attendance at any multiplex. At the beginning of the "Maison Tellier" episode of Le plaisir, an omnibus of three stories by Guy de Maupassant, the camera tilts down from a nighttime cityscape to a sloping sidewalk, follows several men on their way to a brothel, stops at the door as it's being politely shut by the madam in the faces of two latecomers, then cranes up to catch a glimpse through the window of the madam going upstairs, swings along the edge of the house to follow her from window to window on the second floor, and finally frames her behind a lace-curtained pane as she sits down at a desk to write.

In our Steadicam, computer-generated age, Ophuls's virtuosity seems more rather than less impressive. The world he treats with such love is a real unity of space and time, not a piece of software, and the tensions and relaxations of his camera are not merely visual forms but acts of inhabiting this unity. I feel the presence of Ophuls's camera, and I'm exhilarated by the dexterity with which he compensates for its weight. Ophuls's camerawork and pacing generate an excitement that it would be pointless to try to explain. In Lola Montès (1955; March 18 at 3:45 p.m.), Lola's soldier husband (Ivan Desny) careers drunkenly downstairs, hurls a saber across a long table, barks something at his sister as she fades away timidly in the background, then bears down on Lola (Martine Carol), who's struggling with the keys at the front door -- all in a single traveling shot tingling with surrealist unpredictability and inexorability. The urgent tracking shots in The Reckless Moment (1949; March 9 at 8 p.m.), a great thriller about a housewife (Joan Bennett) and a romantic blackmailer (James Mason), make you feel the strain on the heroine's psyche as she reels from one catastrophe to another.

Most of Ophuls's films have women as their central characters, and they're concerned with how women are looked at, and how they control their own images or are forced into images that tyrannize them. In the devastating melodrama Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948; March 2 at 8 p.m.), the meek heroine (Joan Fontaine, in a great performance) spends her life silently adoring a concert pianist (Louis Jourdan) who fails to recognize her from one encounter to the next. Her love for him tears her successively out of her roles as daughter, professional model, and wife; she throws herself ecstatically into a life of renunciation.

If Letter has become, perhaps, the ultimate film-studies object for the way it pushes to an extreme the expressive possibilities of its genre, Lola Montès, Ophuls's last film, is the ultimate cinephilic object: a color-and-Cinemascope dream. The scandalous heroine ends up as a freak in a baroque circus, where her past life is staged in somersaults of cliché'd imagery. Her face seems harassed by the effort of being seen; her passivity is heroic. The flashbacks in which she remembers the past anticipate her end but free us from its pressure, as if life were an endless cycle of flights back and forward.

Shooting through windows, veils, lattices, and screens, Ophuls reminds us of our distance from his characters -- a distance that deepens them. His sets become elaborate obstacle courses. In Lola Montès, Anton Walbrook, as the King of Bavaria, tries to cross a theater set to speak to Lola. Realizing he's taken a false step, he mutters softly, "That doesn't work," before backtracking and crossing at the right place. Walbrook's unscripted "That doesn't work" has exactly the offhand quality that Ophuls, in all his films, wanted from scripted dialogue. Much of the time, it hardly matters what the characters say. The dialogue is deliberately simple and conventional, or else it's reduced to a litany that becomes lulling in its meaninglessness (like ringmaster Peter Ustinov's account of the activities that supposedly make up Lola's domestic life). Often Ophuls's dialogue has a theatrical quality, one that's highlighted by his characters' narcissism and by moments in which they rehearse things they're planning to say to each other. Or, as in Walbrook's improvisation, the dialogue merely marks time while something else happens -- here the king's attempt, momentarily derailed by overeagerness, to get to Lola.

A sequence in Ophuls's breakthrough fourth feature, the impassioned Liebelei (1932; March 11 at noon), illuminates the function of dialogue in his work. As the doomed lovers, Fritz and Christine, ride a sleigh through snowy woods, she swears she'll love him for all eternity, and he teases: "Eternity -- what is eternity?" She explains, "Eternity means beyond life itself." After a pause, Fritz says: "Don't be angry if I am a bit late tonight." This reminds her how little she knows about him, and she asks him to tell her about his life. "Since I met you," he says, "the past doesn't count." She says she'll be late too; and when Fritz assures her that he can wait for her for all eternity, she echoes him: "Eternity -- what is eternity?" The characters' words are at the same time deeply serious and unimportant. The very paleness of the dialogue -- as much as the lyricism of the shots and the evocation of "eternity"-- invites us to see the lovers as transcending time, even as they talk about it.

Eighteen years after Liebelei, which is based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler, Ophuls found in another Schnitzler work, La ronde, the most superb film dialogue ever written. In 1900 Vienna, a circular relay of heterosexual couples is set in motion by an anonymous master of ceremonies (Anton Walbrook). Ophuls is unsparing toward his characters' vanities, hypocrisies, and self-deceptions, but it's clear he doesn't despise these people. It's also clear that even at its most cynical -- as in the later episodes involving a florid romantic poet (Jean-Louis Barrault) and a sex-goddess actress (Isa Miranda) -- La ronde is not just ironic about the possibilities of romantic love. The dominant motif in La ronde is a bedroom conversation about pleasure, happiness, time, and loss. In such scenes, the characters never cease to be self-absorbed and somewhat lost, but Ophuls makes you aware that you're watching them at the moments of their lives in which they manage to elude time. If they keep asking each other, "What time is it?", that's because they still have a distant memory of the world they've fled. The sublimity of Ophuls's form expresses his belief in the supreme value of this escape.

After his next film, the brilliant, frenzied Le plaisir, Ophuls made The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953; March 16 at 8 p.m.), which is as close to a perfect film as can be imagined -- and fortunately it doesn't need to be imagined, since it exists. This tragic love triangle involving a vain countess (Danielle Darrieux), her military husband (Charles Boyer), and an Italian diplomat (Vittorio de Sica) begins like a sardonic essay in frivolity, but Boyer could be speaking for all Ophuls's heroes when he realizes that he and his wife are "only superficially superficial." Darrieux's performances in The Earrings of Madame de . . . , La ronde, and, to a lesser degree, Le plaisir are among the subtlest and most graceful on film, bringing to life without condescension the limited people she's playing.

The MFA's series ought to be longer: the most serious, disheartening omission is Caught (1949), which I'd make a case for as the best of Ophuls's four American films. The series includes two fairly obscure films -- the glowing La signora di tutti (1934; March 4 at 4 p.m.), a precursor to Lola Montès, and the charmingly stylized swashbuckler The Exile (1947; March 17 at 6 p.m.) -- but skips some of the most tantalizing Ophuls esoterica (he made 20 features, all of which showed in New York last summer). Nine films are not enough -- but since these nine films offer the essence of cinema, complaint is churlish.

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