It might at first come as a surprise that Max Ophuls influenced New Wave auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard. The former is a master who mixed opulence with his morality tales. The latter auteur, on the other hand, is a revolutionary in both his subject matter and visual sense. But the connective tissue between one director and one generation to another makes more sense the more we ponder them. Ophuls, despite showing the downfall of his female protagonists, actually roots for them. These characters are also in the forefront despite plopping them into ornate set pieces. And the New Wave and subsequent generations of directors adapted that moral ambiguity. Complexity, after all, is important as they portray their own versions of class and gender conflict.
Ophuls’ life is as complex as his films. This is something we need to keep in mind as we try to whittle his style and sensibilities down. He was a German Jewish man who worked in the film industries of four different countries. And he portrayed characters from four more, if that. Despite this wide net of places of origin, some have characterized his work as quintessentially French. But again, that made sense, especially in portraying white women in beautiful gowns with questionable pasts and presents. Ophuls captured the allure of the brothels or of women’s boudoirs. He embodies his characters’ obsession with music, art, and the men who made them. He put all of these in the stage where all the drama happens, presenting those environments elegantly and joyfully.
Le Plaisir is probably his most masculine and busiest film, his camera moving swiftly to depict three different pleasure houses. Adapting three of Guy de Maupassant’s short stories, he takes quick glances as two of the pleasure houses. The first is a dance hall with many patrons from all walks of life, including a man wearing a mask. Gone are the days when wearing masks in public was acceptable. Ophuls’ camera is dizzying here, showing all the floors where people observe each other’s mating rituals. The last is an artist’s studio, a place we hear about from a writer talking about his friends. One is a model, Josephine (Simone Simon). The other is his actual friend, an artist who she loves. Here we see Simon at her natural habitat, delivering a great character arc in such a short time.
But the meatiest Le Plaisir‘s stories takes the film’s center stage. It’s about the brothel of Madame Julia Tellier (Madeleine Renaud), a story branching out into two more. The first is the seaside city which feels the impact of that brothel’s temporary shuttering. The second is the journey of those sex workers as they travel to the country. Nothing has more impact than one of Tellier’s charges, the repentant Madame Rosa (Danielle Darrieux). She walks into a church wearing stones on her dress, dazzling the countryside’s plain Janes. Alongside her is, her chaperone, Julia’s brother Joseph Rivet (Jean Gabin). He develops feelings for her because who wouldn’t.
TIFF’s retrospective takes a detour to show Ophuls’ last German language film, Liebelei. This film shows his interest in both the organic and manufactured side of love. Before the film started, the festival treated its audience with a few moments with Jutta Brendemuhl. She decided to talk about this deep cut instead of his more famous films that she equally loves. She explained the sociopolitical aspect in his work, which other critics neglect because of his technical prowess. This sociopolitical side is important in watching the story of a young opera audience member and aspiring singer. That audience member is Christine Weyring (Madga Schneider). She drops a pair of binoculars on the heads of two lieutenants who end up changing her life. This is probably the most static Ophuls, an interesting approach in adapting Arthur Schnitzler’s play. But he eventually pans and tilts just as these characters unravel.
Ophuls also worked in America. But just like Hollywood, he can’t really leave Europe’s allure behind. Letter from an Unknown Woman marks a variation in his style, his camera gliding instead of flying. And what better way to depict the tragic story of a Viennese woman, Lisa (Joan Fontaine). In this adaptation of a Stephan Zweig novella, she feels unrequited love for a musician (Louis Jourdain). Here he shows his love for architecture and fashion. He shows how those two envelop and comfort the human spirit even when it’s as its saddest. It also shows his astute mind in casting his actresses. He uses Fontaine’s American sweetheart sensibility and British refinement to make this melodrama work wonders.
But it all comes back to Europe. Dichotomies are abound in The Earrings of Madame De…, pointing to the latent respectability that surprisingly comes with bourgeois gossip. Ophuls reunites with Darrieux, the latter taking the titular Parisian woman. Ophuls’ camerawork here is like a slow coeur de bras, unassuming, intoxicating his audience without the latter knowing it. He does so in depicting someone who, at first, didn’t regard her expensive possessions any thought. That’s until she associates them with both her husband (Charles Boyer) and her Italian lover Baron Donati (Vittorio de Sica). Through Darrieux, Ophuls navigates the film’s spaces with ease. His black and white cinematography also feels delightfully light even at a time when his contemporaries wanted grime.
I am crossing my fingers for a full restoration of Lola Montes. But the version we have here will make audiences more than content. Ophuls’ last film is probably the only one he presents in dazzling technicolor. Here he’s depicting a performance space large enough for his camera to roam free. In New Orleans, a ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) puts the titular dancer and courtesan (Martine Carol) on public display. He’s doing that while making her do high wire acts reflecting her life’s ups and downs. This is one of the wildest meta-narratives and biopics anyone ever put on film. And Ophuls puts a personal stamp, as an auteur would even in telling someone else’s story. This fever dream feels like the best way to end a lifetime of great work.