The Max Factor

A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor dear Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.

James Mason

No description can hope to capture the essence of Max Ophuls's seductive cinema; its greatest moments were achieved through darting and swirling, highly complex camera work. For years, critics who saw only the dazzling surface dismissed Ophuls as a trivial confectioner. But his stylish movies are also exquisite treatises on the mortality of love. Nearly all of them are centered on a female consciousness and are marked by sensitive portrayals of the position of women within patriarchal society.

Born in Germany, naturalized French, Ophuls— the current subject of a 21-film Walter Reade retro— did some of his best work in Hollywood. He entered cinema in 1930 and made his reputation with the antimilitaristic Liebelei(1933), set in turn-of-the- century Vienna. What gives this graceful film a special poignance is that it was produced at a time when Weimar seemed on the point of collapse; this elegy to doomed lovers is imbued with a sense of catastrophe. (Curiously, the deathly cold baron who sets the tragedy in motion is played by Gustav Grundgens, who became a principal figure in Third Reich cinema— he's the model for Klaus Mann's Mephisto.) After the Reichstag fire, Ophuls, who was Jewish, left for France with his family. Although Liebeleiwas a great success, his name was removed from the credits.

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter From an Unknown Woman
photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center
Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter From an Unknown Woman

The films Ophuls made in France during the 1930s are rarely revived and have enjoyed little critical attention. While the group contains no undiscovered masterpieces, at least three— Divine (1935), The Tender Enemy (1936), and Yoshiwara(1937)— are fascinating and eccentric curios. Written by Colette and adapted from her book L'Envers du music hall, the hugely entertaining Divine is arguably the revelation of the series. A farmer's daughter finds work at a Folies-Bergère­type theater, gets involved with a dope-dealing snake charmer, and then, fed up with the big city, marries a handsome milkman and returns to la campagne. One of several Ophuls films concerned with the exploitation of women in a showbiz milieu, Divineis in the tradition of the Hollywood backstage musical, but with a few twists, including a lesbian character who sets her sights on the heroine. This underrated film has had few defenders. One of them was François Truffaut, who found it "a real little Renoir, with naturally that Ophulsian frenzy which drives the camera up staircases, into the flies, in and out of the wings."

In 1940, Ophuls and his family joined the exodus from Paris and eventually arrived in Hollywood in 1941. Four American films followed. The Exile(1947), a costume adventure yarn, Letter From an Unknown Woman(1948), and two superior noirs with James Mason, Caught and The Reckless Moment(1949). Brilliantly shot by Franz Planer, Liebelei's great cameraman, Letter is one of his major works, a complex reflection on the sublimity and the destructiveness of romantic love.

Ophuls returned to France and entered a period of great creativity, with La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1951), The Earrings of Madame de (1953), and Lola Montes (1955). Madame de is a supreme piece of filmmaking that begins as a comedy, soars to the heights of romanticism, and resolves into a tragedy of mutually oppressive relationships.

If Ophuls's magnificent swan song, Lola Montes, is a flawed masterpiece, the flaw is principally the casting of untalented sex symbol Martine Carol— foisted on the director by the moneymen— in the title role of the free-spirited 19th-century Irish girl who became a notorious courtesan. With it, the screen's greatest ornamentalist created the most elaborate film in French cinema since Napoleon. It was a huge commercial flop. The producers prepared a shortened version eliminating its complex flashback structure. Ophuls, who had been suffering from a cardiac problem, spent his last strength fighting to prevent it from being shown in the mutilated form. He died in March 1957, aged 55, and is buried in Paris's Père-Lachaise. Film or history buffs who might want to pay their respects to his heroine don't have all that far to go— Lola is a permanent New Yorker in Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery.

 
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