MAX OPHUL – The Elegant Genius of Cinema
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.