MAX OPHUL – The Elegant Genius of Cinema
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.