Max Ophuls

Without doubt, cinema’s greatest assayer of love, Max Ophuls’ exquisite dissections of that most complex of feelings effortlessly transcend national and linguistic barriers (he made at least one outright masterpiece in at least three different countries: France, the USA and his native Germany). Fascinated by the myriad ways in which we first approach and then enact our desires, Ophuls’ filmography is one that’s completely enamoured with its own romanticism; an obsession exacerbated by the stunning, effervescent flights of his camera and the glistening aestheticism of his mise-en-scène. For all their surface allure however, the director’s films remain acutely attuned to the callous mechanisms which lurk beneath their appealing visages. Adroit in his exploration of societal hypocrisy and social limitations (particularly when inflicted upon women), Ophuls’ finest works disassemble the magisterial artifice that they purportedly celebrate in order to make piercing critiques of their own superficiality. Within these engrossing constructions and deconstructions of beauty, the director discovers love to be the sole force of redemption in a helplessly shallow world – only to then stifle the very sensation that he exalts so evocatively. In doing so, he reveals himself to be both cinema’s most cynical romantic and its most romantic cynic; the lingering dreams of what could have been persisting long after his luxurious visions have faded from the screen.

ON THIS PAGE: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), The Reckless Moment (1949), Le plaisir (1952), Madame de… (1953)

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LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948) – “If Only…”

SPOILER WARNING: Do not watch this video if you wish to avoid crucial plot details being disclosed.

Letter from an Unknown Woman attempts the reconciliation of two divergent fantasies: one male, one female, both troublesome. On the one hand, there’s Lisa’s deluded and obsessive romantic fantasy which results in her inevitable death, thereby taking her forbidden love story to its apex and affording her the status of doomed heroine. On the other, there’s Stefan’s ignorant and shallow sexual fantasy, in which he represses his memories in order to furnish and maintain the convenient role of one-night playboy. In Ophuls’ incredibly sophisticated deconstruction of the woman’s picture, it’s Lisa’s unreliable gaze that appropriately dictates on-screen action (and thus, Stefan’s fate) – and in this intensely spiritual marriage between her confession and his epiphany, her ghost achieves what her being could not: Stefan’s coerced recognition of his subjugated feelings for her. At last, the female fantasy prevails over its male counterpart, and order can be restored in the realm of the tragic melodrama. As for the multitudinous problems inherent within such a resolution? They’re for the audience to savour.

THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949) – Hollywood Ending

SPOILER WARNING: Do not watch this video if you wish to avoid crucial plot details being disclosed.

Max Ophuls’ parting gift to Hollywood was a barbed upending of the fantasies that it held so dear. The director spends much of the film using his moral grayscale to toy with the viewer’s expectations, instigating a deft substitution of its key roles: the supposed heroine’s aloofness and rigid maintenance of order help transpose audience identifiability onto the purported villain, who subsequently transcends the limitations of his designated criminality and veers the text off into a universal hymn for the socially-incarcerated. Having adroitly set the scene, one expects Ophuls to follow this narrative fluidity through to an innovative dénouement. Instead, the film concludes by conforming to the archetypal forecasts with which it began: good girl lives, bad boy dies, familial ideal stays intact. After doing everything possible to protect her domestic paradise, the film’s loving wife and mother realises that her stringent preservation of the American Dream might lack the justification which she presupposed. That awareness, which culminates with an unceasing outburst of emotions (love, frustration, loss) that she’d heretofore repressed in the name of social norms, leads to the most fallacious “happy ending” of its era: an institutional imposition that’s undercut with blistering indignance and caustic irony, where one’s left with little doubt that the film’s best shot at achieving “happy” died abandoned and alone alongside its heroic villain.

LE PLAISIR (1952) – To the Ball!

The final trio of entries in Ophuls’ filmography (Le plaisir, Madame de… and Lola Montes) are – stylistically at least – the richest of his career. Take Le plaisir’s opening sequence: the director’s camera frantically sweeps into a lavish ball, waltzing its way past the absurdly attractive artifice, before participating in a ravishing dance with a masked lothario which intensifies to a literal breaking point. A life force unto itself, one wonders if it’s not the irrepressible vivacity of this instrument that’s the real architect of the would-be Casanova’s swift demise. Forever overcompensating for its subjects’ unfulfilled desires, Ophuls’ camera more often than not ends up underlining the gaping voids within the habitual lives that it so playfully observes. Intentional cruelty, or inadvertent negligence? No matter – when a single instrument can conjure visions of such extravagant, rapturous beauty, resistance is ultimately futile.

LE PLAISIR (1952) – Whores in Church

An unexpected instance of overtly ethereal depth from Ophuls and his merry band of frivolous females, whose sudden predilection for their Maker provokes a contagious, collective flood of tears that swiftly permeates their entire congregation. The director wisely opts to conceal the reasons behind this shared outpouring, thereby safeguarding the integrity of their souls even when he’s helpless to prevent the commodification of their bodies. One of the most moving sequences in his entire oeuvre, in which the redemptive context and plaintive emotions speak entirely for themselves.

MADAME DE… (1953) – Louise vs. Her Possession(s)

The sublime opening scene of Ophuls’ towering masterpiece, in which he initiates a dynamic correspondence with the viewer through his coded imagery. With a single, deceptively incisive take, his camera glides around a lavish bedchamber alongside the eponymous heroine to whom all this grandeur (presumably) belongs. In a tantalising move, the director denies his audience an unobstructed view of this enigmatic woman until over half of his scenic interrogation is complete; the innumerable jewels and mirrors that shimmer amidst the velvets and furs offering more available and immediate pleasures. When the mystery of his protagonist’s visage is finally revealed to us, she appears not in front of the camera, but instead as a reflection in a table mirror. Swiftly, the facade of opulence is unclothed before our eyes: for all her self-evident economic clout, this elegant female is a crucial constituent of the commodity-infested environment that’s so blinding on screen. Although her gaze stares back at the audience, her physical presence as the film’s subject is overwhelmed by the parade of surrounding props, thereby propelling her withdrawal into objectification. Our perception of those commodities now undergoes a significant transition: no longer are they gloriously enticing symbols of wealth and power, for they now morph into instruments of covert patriarchal oppression; symptomatic of a “trophy wife” culture that’s adhered to all too fervently. In hindsight, it’s uncomfortably incongruous of Madame de… to state that “I can do as I like with them” when discussing her valuables this early on – her chimera of independence is negated by the exact materials that furnish her fantasy. Already, the mountains that she must climb in order to exact her personal will are dauntingly visible in the distance.

MADAME DE… (1953) – The Dance

An elegant roundelay of passion, charged with all the urgency of repressed desire. As two ill-fated lovers waltz, Ophuls seamlessly cuts and dissolves the world around them, layering emotional subtexts onto one another and completely disregarding time whilst remaining all too aware of the threat that it poses. Leaping from formality to informality, vacuity to cognizance and frivolity to love, this exquisite ballroom routine encapsulates the very spirit of the director’s magnificent art: with the graceful choreography of his legendary camera, he articulates the value of pure sentiments in environments where they’re all too frequently marginalised. Threatened from every angle by the superficiality and hypocrisy of an aristocracy thriving in the Belle Époque, the pair under scrutiny decamp to the safety of the dancefloor – an arena which Ophuls conceives as a transitory Utopia, with the dance itself now remoulded into the purest of unions between two earnest souls. An illusion, no doubt, but there’s no other director who could so alluringly make one want to believe in the fallacy.

MADAME DE… (1953) – Snowflakes

A love letter, torn to shreds and discarded to the wind. What will the forces of nature do with such precious words? In an Ophulsian universe… well, see for yourself.

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