MAX OPHUL – The Elegant Genius of Cinema
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.”
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