Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Max Ophuls x 3: La Ronde, Le Plaisir, The Earrings of Madame De

The Earrings of Madame De...

LA RONDE, LE PLAISIR, THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE... (Ophuls, 1950, 1952, 1953)
Criterion Collection, DVD, Release Date Sep 16, 2008 
Review by Christopher S. Long

The following is a combined review of the three Max Ophuls films released by Criterion on September 16, 2008: “La ronde” (1950), “Le plaisir” (1952), and “The Earrings of Madame de…” (1953). Beneath the main body of the review you will find Video, Audio, Extras, and Final Thoughts for each of the three films. Please note that Criterion re-released “The Earrings of Madame De...” on Blu-ray in 2013 with identical extras; the high-grade transfer was so-so by Criterion standards but not as poor as some review sites claimed at the time.

Both a canonized auteur and a successful commercial filmmaker on both sides of the Atlantic from the '30s through the '50s, German-born Max Ophuls may not be as widely recognized today as some of his peers, but boy did those peers recognize him. A fellow by the name of Stanley Kubrick certainly did.

Kubrick seldom discussed other filmmakers but eagerly expressed his admiration for Ophuls’ mastery of the tracking shot, an obvious influence on Kubrick’s career from at least as early as “Paths of Glory” which was shot in 1957, the same year that Max Ophuls suffered a fatal heart attack. According to actor Richard Anderson, Kubrick wrapped shooting on “Paths” one day and proclaimed “This shot is in memory of Max Ophuls, who died today.” Anderson said, “(Ophuls) was Stanley’s god.”

Ophuls’ insistently roving camera was not unprecedented in the '40s and '50s, but no commercial filmmaker of the time so elegantly integrated the mobile camera into his work. Time and again, characters are introduced with long, graceful tracking shots that guide them from the edge of the frame into the heart of the scene. Ophuls was fond of elaborately choreographed shots such as the much-celebrated dance sequences in “The Earrings of Madame de…”, and “La Ronde.” The camera just barely keeps up with the whirling characters as they cover some serious ground and then circle back to do it all again. He didn't make it look effortless; he simply made it look flawless. Ophuls achieved the kind of perfection that produces a sense of awe and the (accurate) impression that nobody else could possibly have shot it.

But the roving camera was hardly the only trick in Max Ophuls’ movie bag. In one scene from “Le plaisir,” a traveling salesman shares a train car with several of the ladies of the Maison Tellier. Burdened with the tools of his trade, he places a large bag on the shelf above the women. It falls and he catches it just before it hits one of them. He tucks it back in rather carelessly, then places a much heavier suitcase on the shelf to his left. Once again, he deftly snags it as it falls and returns it to the luggage rack where it leans precariously over the edge. In what becomes a 2 minute, 27 second static shot (with one slight zoom in to reframe the characters) in a cramped space, Ophuls creates multiple focal points in the frame. The teetering bags are very much “alive” in this scene: we wait for them to fall at any point as the train car shakes and rattles. Add a coupe of quacking ducks in a basket held by one of the women and a long shot with almost no camera movement becomes very dynamic. It’s a remarkable feat of craftsmanship, made even more remarkable by the fact that it can so easily drift by unnoticed.

In another Kubrick connection, “La ronde” is adapted from a work by Arthur Schnitzler author of “Traumnovelle” which Kubrick and Frederic Raphael adapted for “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999). Here, Ophuls and screenwriting partner Jacques Natanson adapt the saucy, scandalous, and oft-censored Schnitzler play described as “a story of love” which is to say “a story of sex.” A merry-go-round features prominently in the film and serves as the guiding conceit for the entire movie. The film begins with a prostitute seducing a soldier: in the next scene, the soldier seduces a chambermaid who next proceeds to seduce (and be seduced by) her employer and so on. Every character in the film except for one has two romantic assignations in the film. 

Walbrook in La ronde

The exception is the “meneur de jeu,” a master of ceremonies (played by veteran actor Anton Walbrook) who serves multiple and mysterious functions in the film. Dressed in coat and top hat, he narrates the film and operates the merry-go-round, but he also appears in most of the scenes nominally as a character integrated into the narrative but also with an omniscient perspective, offering cleverly worded advice to people not quite clever enough to figure out what the hell he’s talking about.

The film shows no graphic sex, of course (this was 1950 after all) but it is shockingly frank about its intentions. These characters are not spending romantic days in the countryside together. They are, quite simply, trying to hook up and succeeding quite admirably in their efforts. As the merry-go-round spins on, so does the wheel of life and love and lust with room for everyone but waiting for nobody. The film is studded with an all-star cast including Walbrook, Simone Signoret, Gerard Philipe, Isa Miranda, Simone Simon, and frequent Ophuls’ actress Danielle Darrieux who appears in all three of the Ophuls films released by Criterion this month.

Le plaisir

“Le plaisir” (1952) is a more restrained affair, but still quite bold by the standards of the time. It would have been much bolder if Ophuls had his way. The story is designed as a triptych, adapting three stories by Guy de Maupassant: “The Mask,” “The Tellier House,” and “The Model.” Ophuls originally planned to adapt “Paul’s Mistress” a story in which the title character has a lesbian affair. Alas, after the sequence was initially approved, a new production company that took over after the first went bankrupt nixed the idea.

“The Tellier House” is the second story and takes up the bulk of the film. The title house is a brothel that forms the nexus of all night-life in a small Normandy town. One day the male clients discover the lights in the house are mysteriously turned off and the doors shuttered. This is the equivalent of showing up at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and finding it closed. A riot breaks out at the brothel while the “gentleman” of town gradually congregate (oddly, they all happen to be heading to the same place at the same time...) to figure out how to deal with this existential crisis. Their polite debates devolve into heated arguments and occasional fisticuffs, once again proving one of the immutable laws of nature: horny men don’t think clearly and shouldn’t gather in large groups.

It turns out the ladies have gone to the countryside to attend the first communion of Madame Tellier’s niece. When they arrive in this presumably more god-fearing pastoral town, they are still treated as royalty by all the men… well, see above for a discussion of the immutable laws of nature.

Darrieux as Madame de...

Both “La ronde” and “Le plaisir” are superb examples of Ophuls at the top of his game, but “The Earrings of Madame de…,” based on a story by Louise de Vilmorin, is the masterpiece of the collection and perhaps the greatest achievement of his career (1948’s brilliant “Letter from an Unknown Woman” being the most likely challenger to the title.) Danielle Darrieux delivers the performance of a lifetime as the serial fainter and pathological liar Louise who is never given a last time.

Married to the wealthy General André (played by superstar Charles Boyer), Louise has a tendency to outspend the ample allowance given to her by her husband. She pawns the title earrings then concocts a story about losing them at the opera, the first of many lies that Louise tells and the one that sets the narrative into motion. Just as “La Ronde” followed a series of connected sexual liaisons, this movie follows the earrings en route to Constantinople by way of André’s mistress and back into Louise’s possession via the Italian Baron Donati who becomes Louise’s most earnest suitor (there are many). Donati is played with panache by Vittorio de Sica and his compelling performance here provides a reminder to modern audiences that the man identified as one of the great Italian neo-realist directors was much better known to audiences of the time as a dashing screen icon.

André is used to Louise’s admirers and he plays the gentleman’s game of love with verve, but the shifting ownership of the earrings (and the lies and scandal associated with them) humiliates him. He cannot let Louise Who-Has-No-Last-Name-But-If-She-Did-It-Would-Be-His labor under the false assumption that she is not his to control. Love isn't an emotion, it's a set of rules.

The film’s incredible dancing sequences have been oft-discussed but virtually every shot in this film possesses a luminous quality that is unique to Max Ophuls. I simply don’t have room to discuss them, but you can get some sense of the mastery on display in the “Visual Analysis” provided by Tag Gallagher on the DVD.

These three films marked the final stage of Ophuls’ illustrious career. With “La ronde” he returned home, or more accurately the German-born Jew who fled Nazi Germany returned from Hollywood to France where he directed these three films plus his final work “Lola Montès” in 1957 before dying of a heart attack at the age of 55.

LA RONDE 



Video:
"La ronde" is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio. Like most recent Criterion full-screen releases, the image is pictureboxed which means some viewers will see thin black bars on the left and right of the image. The digitally restored transfer isn’t quite up to the usual Criterion standards, nor is it as good as the other two Ophuls DVDs released this month. There are more imperfections visible than usual with Criterion transfer, perhaps this was a more partial restoration than most. Still, the image quality is very good, and probably the best available right now.

Audio:
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The mix is clear if not dynamic. Not much to say here. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
The feature-length commentary track by scholar Susan White, author of “The Cinema of Max Ophuls” is jam-packed with strong analysis and information. White often sounds like she is reading from her book or from pre-scripted passages, but this minor bit of awkwardness doesn’t detract from the quality of her contribution to Ophuls’ scholarship.

“Circles of Desire: Alan Williams on ‘La ronde.’” Williams is the author of “Ophuls and the Cinema of Desire: A Critical Study of Six Films, 1948-1955.” I haven’t had a chance to listen to this 35 minute critical analysis yet.

Marcel Ophuls, the director’s son, discusses his father’s work in an interview from Cannes in 2008 (7 min.) Marcel is also an accomplished director best known for “The Sorrow and the Pity” (1969) and “Hotel Terminus” (1988).

An interview with actor Daniel Gélin (12 min.), conducted by Martina Müller in 1989, provides some insight into what it was like to work for Ophuls, but I can’t say I found this particularly riveting.

“Schnitzler Correspondence.” An odd feature which shows letters written between Sir Laurence Olivier and Heinrich Schnitzler, Arthur’s son. The correspondence concerns an adaptation of the play being directed by Olivier.

The slim insert booklet features an essay by Terrence Rafferty.

Final Thoughts:
I am not quite as enthusiastic about “La ronde” as many critics. I find Walbrook’s winking “meneur de jeu” overbearingly clever, and the story of serial sexual encounters gets a little tiresome by the end. However, “La ronde” is still a film which showcases Ophuls at the peak of his creative powers, and also features an extraordinary cast.

LE PLAISIR 



Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio. Like most recent Criterion full-screen releases, the image is pictureboxed which means some viewers will see thin black bars on the left and right of the image. The digitally restored transfer is remarkably clean, though the image looks a bit dark overall. However, the contrast is still sharp overall. A very strong transfer.

Audio:
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Ophuls recorded English and German versions of “La Ronde” in addition to the French. In the English version, only the narration is in English with the dialogue still in French. The German version also includes dubbed German dialogue. The disc presents the opening of the film in each of the two alternate language tracks. You cannot, however, choose to listen to the entire film in either version.

Extras:
“Le plaisir” is the only one of these three Criterion releases that does not offer a commentary track.

A video introduction by Todd Haynes (18 min.) was recorded in Hollywood in April 2005. This feature comes with a warning that the intro gives away significant plot elements.

“From Script to Screen” (20 min.) is one of the best extra on all three discs. Film Scholar Jean-Pierre Berthomé works from the original shooting scripts of the film to discuss the numerous changes the project underwent from the page to the final product.

The disc also includes another excerpt from the interview with actor Daniel Gélin, conducted by Martina Müller in 1989 (12 min.)

Two other 1989 interviews by Müller are offered as well: with assistant director Tony Aboyantz (13 min.) and with set decorator Robert Christidès (15 min.)

The slim insert booklet features an essay by the great Robin Wood.

Film Value:
“Le plaisir” is usually considered the least of these three films, but I liked it more than “La ronde.” I didn’t get a chance to mention the two shorter de Maupassant stories that flank “Tellier House” but both are quite entertaining, especially the final section “The Model” although it does include a point-of-view shot that may have seemed innovative at the time but comes across as clunky today. Each of the stories occupies its own distinct space, but all are woven together thematically into an engaging and often moving whole.

THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE…



Video:
"Madame de..."  is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-screen aspect ratio. Like most recent Criterion full-screen releases the image is pictureboxed which means some viewers will see thin black bars on the left and right of the image. The restored transfer is up to the very best Criterion standards. This is clean, bright, sharp and simply beautiful. Not a single complaint.

Audio:
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
Susan White returns (from the “La ronde” DVD) for this feature-length commentary, this time sharing the bill with Gaylyn Studlar. The commentary is as strong here as it was for “La ronde.”

Paul Thomas Anderson puts down his milkshake long enough to provide an articulate and engaging introduction (14 min) to the film. Be warned, the introduction gives away plot elements.

A “Visual Essay” (17 min.) by Tag Gallagher shows off the advantages of criticism in the digital format. Gallagher plays and replays specific shots from the film in order to analyze Ophuls’ unique mise-en-scene in great detail. I just wish this feature was much longer. An hour’s worth of this critical approach would be thoroughly compelling.

The disc includes three interview with Ophuls collaborators: assistant director Alan Jessua (25 min.), co-writer Annette Wademant (7 min.) and assistant decorator Marc Frédérix (8 min.)

The final feature is a brief excerpt (5 min.) from an interview with novelist Louise de Vilmorin whose story was adapted for the film. The excerpt is from the French TV series “Démons et merveilles du cinéma” and originally aired on Nov 20, 1965.

A thick insert booklet is nestled next to the DVD n the cardboard case. It includes an essay by critic Molly Haskell, an excerpt from a 1962 book “Max Ophuls” by costume designer Georges Annenkov, and the original story by Louise de Vilmorin that served as the source material for the movie.

Final Thoughts:
“The Earrings of Madame de…” is a masterpiece by any standard with every element working in unison: dynamic camerawork, an economical script (by Ophuls, Marcel Achard, and Annette Wademant), and brilliant performances, particularly by Darrieux. As Molly Haskell writes in the insert booklet, it’s quite shocking that the film doesn’t appear more often on lists of the greatest films. It certainly deserves a place high in the canon.


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