Max Ophul The Elegant Genius Of Cinema2010-09-14
MAX OPHULS returned to France in 1949. One of the most widely travelled of directors, this German-born film maker had directed films in Germany, Italy and Holland as well as in France which was his home from 1933 till 1940. The war years he had spent in the United States, unable to find work until 1947 when he made the first of his four American films. Like so many of Ophul's projects, the one which brought him back to France — a version of Balzac's "La Duchesse de Langeais" to star Greta Garbo — was never realised. Instead Ophuls made La Ronde (1950), his most widely distributed film and one of his greatest successes. It opened the series of works on which his reputation chiefly rests and with it he formed the team of collaborators that remained virtually unchanged until his death. La Ronde was adapted from the play "Reigen" by one of Ophuls's favourite authors, Arthur Schnitzler. In collaboration with Jacques Natanson, Ophuls has idealised this work, setting it in a fairytale Vienna of 1900. In this film the view of love as a regular interchange of partners (which Ophuls shared with Renoir) is developed into a ring of encounters linking the characters, each of whom passes from one lover to another. The film is full of cynicism and worldly wit and Ophuls takes an apparent delight in the manipulation of his characters, exploiting to the full the irony of their situation: the fact that their partners change but their gestures remain the same, that they are in turn deceivers and deceived, involuntarily echoing each other's words and sentiments. The film is episodic, amounting in effect to ten variations on the same theme and great ingenuity is shown by the authors in varying the routine of encounter, seduction and desertion. To link the episodes Ophuls used the famous waltz written for the film by Oscar Straus, the recurring image of the roundabout, and the very important character played by Anton Walbrook, that of master of ceremonies or meneur de jeu. He is a sort of personification of the director himself, manipulating the characters and making them dance to the tune of the waltz. The freedom of the meneur de jeu contrasts with the captivity of the other characters. He can choose a new identity at will and range freely through time, while they are prisoners of their own personalities, unable to escape from the crowded present. The fact that the circle is never broken gives a sense of fatality to the coupling of the characters and the dialogue is littered with epigrams about the impossibility of love and happiness, but only in the eyes of the most fervent admirers of Ophuls does this lighthearted work contain a tragic demonstration of the futility of man's quest for pleasure.
After this resounding success Ophuls turned to Guy de Maupassant, choosing three of his stories for adaptation to make up Le Plaisir (1952). The three episodes are by no means given equal weight and the middle story tends to overshadow the other two. The first, Le Masque, contrasts pleasure and old age, telling the rather gruesome tale of an old man so addicted to dancing that he keeps to it despite his age and has a mask made to hide his wrinkles. His story is told by his wife to the doctor who treats him after he has collapsed on the dance floor. The second and longest story, La Maison Teller, opposes pleasure and purity. The inmates of a brothel attend the first communion of the madame's young niece. Their appearance causes quite a stir in the remote village and in church the tears brought to their eyes by the thought of their own fate prove contagious and soon all are weeping. After one of them, Rosa (Dan-ielle Darrieux), has enjoyed a brief idyll with their farmer host (Jean Gabin), the girls return home and resume work again. For the final episode Ophuls wanted to contrast pleasure and death in "La Femme de Paul" but had to replace this with Le Modele at the producer's insistence. This episode now deals with pleasure and marriage, seen as opposites. A young painter who has had an affaire with his model marries her after she has thrown herself out of the window because of her love for him and devotes his life to caring for his crippled wife. Despite the unifying theme, that the search for happiness is not gay, Le Plaisir is the most disjointed of Ophuls's films. He has striven to give it unity and shape by balancing the humorous central story with two shorter ones, both more serious in mood. In the first story we see a woman who sacrifices herself to the man she loves, in the third the roles are reversed and it is the man who makes the sacrifices. In the final version the stories are linked tenuously by the voice of a narrator but originally the link was to have been tighter, for Ophuls planned to set the stories in a framework of conversation between the author (Maupassant) and the cinéaste (Ophuls). As in all his films Ophuls indulges his passion for tracking and crane shots. Typical in this respect is his treatment of the Maison Tellier: although the interior of this was built in the greatest detail and at great care and expense, the camera never enters it, contenting itself with circling the exterior, climbing the walls and peering through the windows at the activity within. Apart from the ingenuity with which Ophuls and his team have solved the technical problems which he set, the film's main delight is the humour extracted from the ironies of the central story's situation of a brothel "closed because of first communion."
For the subject of his next film, Madame de (1953) Ophuls turned to a shortish story by Louise de Vilmorin which he adapted with two new collaborators, Marcel Achard and Annette Wademant. His attitude to the subject is clear from his own description of it: "The only thing that tempts me in this slight story is its construction: there is always the same axis around which the action continually turns, like a roundabout. A tiny, scarcely visible axis: a pair of earrings." These earrings pass from hand to hand. Husband and wife, his mistress and her lover all own them at some time until they complete the circle to give the husband proof of his wife's infidelity. Among the changes made is the inclusion of a duel at the end between husband and lover, presumably added to give greater weight to the story. It is in perfect keeping with the film's turn of the century setting, as is the conception of the heroine dying of a broken heart. Decor and costumes play a vital role in the film. The camera tracks and whirls amid the curtains, mirrors and chandeliers, catching all the glitter of the sumptuous dresses of the women and the uniforms of the soldiers and diplomats, pursuing the characters as they move to theatre, dance or reception and return again. As so often in Ophuls one is struck by the vanity and frivolity of the lives of the main characters interpreted here by Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio de Sica. The freedom with which Ophuls handles his marionettes and subordinates them to his aesthetic design is perhaps best shown in the dance scenes where shots of Madame de . . . and her diplomat lover move to and fro, from long shot to close-up, to trace the development of their relationship, the successive changes of clothing with each new shot indicating that this sequence is a condensation of a number of meetings. The unifying function of the waltz tune here is typical of the use of music throughout the film.
Lola Months (1955), the last film Max Ophuls made before his death at the age of fifty-five, is in many ways a fitting culmination to his life's work. The producers' aim was a block-buster starring Martine Carol, then at the height of her fame, and based on a novel by Cécil Saint-Laurent, author of the celebrated and highly successful "Caroline Chérie". Ophuls was given the sort of resources normally available only to the tried commercial director, such as Martine Carol's ex-husband Christian-Jaque: a large budget and a thirty-three week shooting schedule, colour, cinemascope and a cast of international stars. When completed the film turned out to contain the very essence of the director's art and to be, at the same time, an enormous commercial failure, even after drastic cutting and re-editing by the producers, who as a result went bankrupt. The novel and its heroine were of little interest to Ophuls: "Lola Months? That woman doesn't interest me: half-prostitute, mediocre dancer, pretty face, what else? It is the people who surround her that excite me. If the almost permanent presence of Lola on the screen is indispensable it is not the same as saying she embodies the essential of the subject. Her role is roughly the same as that of our pair of earrings in Madame de . . ." The subject — the rise of Lola Monts from humble beginnings as a dancer to the heights as lover of Liszt and mistress of the King of Bavaria, and her subsequent fall to circus star selling kisses at a dollar a time — is not the major consideration. All the interest is in the treatment and here Ophuls is at his most elaborate. The film begins and ends with scenes in the circus, with flashbacks to her earlier life rising out of this, provoked by the ring master's account of her life and the audience's remarks. Ophuls was opposed to the use of the wide screen but has been able to mask part of it with pillars, draperies and arches. This was his only colour film and he has attempted to use colour both dramatically (contrasting the blackness of the auditorium with the vivid colours of the performers) and symbolically (in the garishness of the circus). The costumes of the performers are in violent colours, often contrasting ones, and the revolving circus settings are frequently bathed in coloured light. The main flashbacks have been given a dominant colour scheme corresponding to a season: black blue and grey for Lola's youth (spring), red and gold for her affair with Liszt (autumn), white, blue, silver and gold for the Bavarian episode (winter). The camera is never still. It pivots and circles restlessly through the extravagant decor crammed with grills and stairways, performs arabesques within the ever changing scenery of the circus ring, sweeps after the characters as they move in their brightly coloured costumes from setting to setting, up and down stairs or from trapeze to trapeze, and peeps through windows, curtains and doorways. What is there beneath this surface? Hardly a human being for Martine Carol is wooden and inexpressive in the main role, while the men around her are little more than caricatures or puppets. Technically, however, the result is awe-inspiring. All the features of Ophuls's style, all his favourite situations and love of opulence and intricacy are here. Lola Mantes seems at times a synthesis of his life's work of twenty-one films. But what is lacking is depth: the whole tour de force is dazzling but ultimately quite remarkably hollow.
MAX OPHULS is virtually a test case of one's approach to the cinema. For those whose concern is purely visual and whose ideal is an abstract symphony of images, Ophuls has the status of one of the very great directors. For spectators and critics who demand in addition to the images the sort of human insight and moral depth that a play or a novel can give, he is merely a minor master, maker of exquisite but rather empty films. Whether he is regarded as a major or a minor figure in the history of the film there is, however, no denying that he is an artist of considerable sensitivity and possessor of an incredible technical command of his chosen medium.
Ophuls came to the cinema at the age of twenty-eight after six years activity as a theatrical producer. He has explained his changed approach on abandoning the theatre with a typical Ophuls simile: "I was no longer concerned with anything but the image. The camera, this new means of expression which I had at my disposal for the first time, turned me irresistibly from words, rather as a young mistress turns a man from his wife." He has always had an enormous respect for technical achievement, realising that a lifetime can be spent mastering all the intricacies of film making, but for him technique is only a beginning, not an end: "I believe that the aim of all technique is to allow itself to be mastered. One should dominate it so well that it becomes transparent, that beyond the reproduction of reality it becomes the instrument of thought, play, enchantment and dream." A knowledge of technique is important so that one can break the rules and do the impossible. He was ready to admit that the film is a collective art form to which many people contribute: "I do not believe there is one creator in a film: I think, and it is practically an axiom for me, that there are as many creators in a film as there are people working on it. My job as director is to make these people into a chorus... I can only arouse the creative force in each of them." On the four films with which we are concerned here he assembled a highly gifted team of collaborators who have never surpassed their work with him: the writers Jacques Natanson (principal scriptwriter on three films) and Annette Wademant (who worked on the last two); the director of photography Christian Matras who was responsible for lighting all but the third episode of Le Plaisir; and the team of Jean d'Eaubonne and Georges Annenkov who designed respectively the sets and the costumes of all four films. But Ophuls knew also that he was ultimately responsible for his films and that the work of these collaborators was of value only if it translated his vision into film terms: "I believe that the real aim of the artist is to give a new vision of the world. Fundamentally all subjects end by resembling each other. It is the personal vision which we have of a milieu or of a person, and the form which we communicate to them, that differentiate them."
The image was for Ophuls the only possible beginning to a film: "The argument, the subject of a film begins to exist for me only when I can "represent" it to myself by a succession of images . In a film the text, the technique, the logical development must come after the image — the latter bearing the artistic truth in the cinema and revealing in itself innumerable marvels." Max Ophuls was a man of wide cultural interests and had a deep respect for literature, yet the characteristic of his subject matter is its triviality. It is not by chance that his last film in the U.S.A. was from a Ladies' Home Journal story, for Ophuls's subject matter is the beautiful but unhappy woman. The themes of the transitoriness of pleasure and the precariousness of happiness recur again and again, their reappearance emphasised by the continual use of a dream-world turn of the century setting with beautifully gowned women and elegant top-hatted gentlemen or uniformed officers. The same images — the lovers' meeting in the snow and the duel for instance — tend to crop up continually in films made over a period of twenty-five years in five countries and give his work its striking stylistic unity. The stories of Ophuls's films are slight, tending to be episodic, and a great deal of care is expended by director and writers on the shaping of this material: the perfect roundabout of meetings in La Ronde, the peregrinations of the earrings in Madame de . . ., the balancing of the three stories in Le Plaisir and the pattern of the flashbacks in Lola Montès.
Above all Ophuls is concerned with details: "Details, details, details! The most insignificant, the most unobtrusive among them are often the most evocative, characteristic and even decisive. Exact details, an artful little nothing, make art." The sets and costumes of his films from La Ronde to Lola Mottles are all elaborate evocations of the nineteen hundreds, with the detail chosen not for historical accuracy but for picturesque value. These settings are the source of the heaviness that many critics have found in Ophuls's work despite its slight themes and agile camerawork. Ophuls brought from his stage career a genuine affection for his players ("I love all actors") and he would spend hours rehearsing them on the set, guiding them to the exact effects he wanted, but nevertheless he allows them to be dominated by the décor and his visual preoccupations. As Peter Ustinov, who was the ringmaster in Lola Monks, put it: "The actor was often reduced to a cloistered being on tiptoe who could hardly breathe for fear of blowing away some precious cobweb which had its vital symbolical meaning." The feeling that the characters are not people but mere puppets is increased in some films by the presence of a figure representing the omnipotent author putting the other characters through their paces: the meneur de jeu in La Ronde and the ringmaster in Lola Montès.
For Ophuls the essence of the cinema lies in the play of light, the juggling with surfaces. His camera tracks, turns and zigzags in virtuoso fashion to catch every facet of the intricate settings and costumes of his films. Not content with filming straightforwardly, he multiplies the difficulties, shoots round pillars or through curtains or grills, making his characters move the whole time so that his shots grow in length and complexity. But never does he use his camera to probe beneath the surface. His director of photography Christian Matras explained this by saying: "The reality which he glimpsed was so fragile that too direct a penetration would have destroyed it. That is the justification for those innumerable spiral staircases or long tracking shots which skirt or caress reality without ever damaging it." Perhaps it is truer to say, however, that in fact there is a void beneath the elaborate surface of Ophuls's films. He described Danielle Darrieux's task in playing Madame de . . . as that of "incarnating a void, non-existence. Not filling a void, but incarnating it," and described Madame de's life as "non-existence copiously fed and richly dressed." If one accepts this void as a yawning abyss looming beneath those who base their lives on the search for pleasure, it is possible to see Ophuls's films as a critique of elegant society and to regard him as a baroque poet in the full sense of the word. If not Ophuls remains an amiable, entertaining guide to a world of frivolity and pleasure, rather like the meneur de jeu of La Ronde who introduced himself with the is miraculously transformed into a princely version of Avenant after Belle has looked at him for the first time with loving eyes. The childlike innocence which Cocteau demands of his audience in his brief introduction to the film is not at all apparent in his own approach. Visually, the film is most sophisticated: the costumes (by Christian Bérard, who was also artistic director) and the camera style (by Henri Alekan, under the technical supervision of René Clément) are decorative rather than functional and have their origin in Dutch painting, particularly the work of Vermeer. The legend is handled in a variety of styles. The home life of Belle's family is parodied and is often broadly farcical in tone (as, for instance, in the use of cackling ducks to accompany the shots of Belle's two sisters). By contrast, the departure of Belle for the Beast's castle and her entry there are stylised, Cocteau employing slow motion photography to obtain a dreamlike effect. The fairytale world of the Beast's castle is given great solidity for Cocteau aimed at giving a "realism of the unreal" and it is arguable that in fact the setting has been given too much weight : there is a degree of ponderousness about the film which Georges Auric's music serves only to emphasise. In evoking the magical qualities of the castle Cocteau has made strangely little use of the film's trick shot possibilities ; the living faces of the statuary and the disembodied human arms that act as the Beast's servants are essentially theatrical devices. One of the great difficulties facing Cocteau was that of making the oversimplified and unpersonalised figures of a fairytale into characters capable of sustaining interest in a film lasting some ninety minutes. The solution found for the minor characters was caricature and an often humorous approach. As far as the two principal characters are concerned, the make-up of Jean Marais as the Beast emphasises his bestial nature in a number of ways, as do such scenes as that of the Beast drinking and that where he scents game. But Belle remains a rather dull figure, despite the beauty of Josette Day. The film does, however, constantly open up odd perspectives — particularly through the ambiguities of Belle's attitude to the Beast — and the double use of Marais as Avenant and Beastcum-Prince Charming avoids the danger of too easy an explanation of the film's symbolism.
After this appropriation of a fairytale to his own personal mythology, words: "I am the incarnation of your desire ... of your desire to know everything. Men never know more than a part of reality. Why? ... Because they see only one aspect of things. As for me, I see everything, because I see things in the round."