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MISS ON SCENE: Max Ophüls

southern film

The Many Loves of a Southern Cinephile:

Passions of the Married Woman

Recently, while traveling through Frankfurt, I made a trip to the Deutsches Filmmuseum. The city itself is an almost cravenly cosmopolitan place—the phrase on the hotel broadside accompanying a complimentary fruit plate read: “Frankfurt is the Mainhattan of Europe” [sic]. It was kind of a charming, wishful typo. What it is is the true financial center of Europe, containing a platz blazing an enormous neon, star-speckled € symbol to prove it. Several museums and cultural institutions line the Main River, the film museum being one of them. While I believe it to be a lovely facility with a celebrated movie theater in its basement, the permanent exhibit itself leaves something to be desired.

One moment, on the first level, you’re standing in a giant camera obscura, or examining strange celluloids from Victorian magic-lantern shows. But when you ascend to the second level, the first thing you’re greeted with is Romy Schneider’s costume from the 1972 Luchino Visconti film, Ludwig, which, might I add, the displaced Southerner is inclined to mistake at first glance for some of Scarlett O’Hara’s garb. While there are some interesting video exercises in sound and film editing, the second floor is more about celebrity and tugs on the sentimental fascination of film itself as opposed to giving the viewer a methodical historical backdrop to lean on.

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Oh, and if it’s not clear—it’s not just a museum about German film. It’s a film museum in Germany. While they hold archives of some of the greatest German masters—including Lotte Reiniger (of Adventures of Prince Achmed immortality), and marvelous pieces like an original design sketch from the indomitable The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—by this point, I’d moved on to a fresh obsession with one particular German director who wasn’t represented at all in the holdings.

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But first, let me digress for a second. In the New York Times holiday movie supplement, something caught my eye in Terrence Rafferty’s teaser about the new Anna Karenina adaptation. He describes the perennial problem with film versions of the Tolstoy tome as such: 

For filmmakers the problem with the book (aside from its length) is in fact that it lends itself rather too readily to the romantic fallacy. “Anna Karenina” can, with minimal effort, be made to fit the template of a particular, once foolproof, movie genre, the “women’s picture.” In that sort of melodrama, the emphasis throughout falls on the suffering of the heroine—at the hands of men or ungrateful children or society at large, but always, ultimately, of fate. It’s as if there were a cosmic conspiracy against her happiness: If a woman dares to love too deeply, as Anna does Vronsky, the gods will strike her down.

It’s kind of an incendiary passage. I mean, what the hell really is a woman’s picture? Sure, it’s a book about a passionate, ill-fated love affair at the behest of a woman whose second act comes much later in life when she’s firmly entrenched in a loveless, respectable marriage from which she can’t escape. And nobody, not even a woman (I dare say) would argue that Anna Arkadyevna is a faultless, guileless, unselfish heroine manipulated by a cruel patriarchy. She’s pretty obviously just as shitty as everyone else. Furthermore, “melodrama” more often than not implies “period” or “costume” buried somewhere in there. (Rafferty particularly complains of the Clarence Brown/Greta Garbo 1935 version: “Garbo’s wardrobe is especially distracting. The gowns are frilly and fussy, and the hats are alarming; when Anna watches Vronsky riding in a horse race, she looks like a Southern belle on Kentucky Derby day.”)

What’s my problem? I love costume dramas—all of their stupid flounces and bustles and veils and cravats—but I believe, despite the fact that I am a woman, that melodramas, even featuring a bold female lead, can be brilliant, provocative, and witty, without the stiffness of an Ibsen adaptation. And I’ve seen it happen!

It’s precisely this conundrum that attracts me to the French-language trilogy of German director Max Ophüls. Remembered on his centennial by Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, Ophüls was the director who seemed most able to capture all the visual luxury of the romantic costume drama without any of the stodginess:

I know what lured him on: first, the idea of the military man, his manners as buffed as his boots, both obeying and toying with the codes of his livelihood; second, the besotted woman—what used to be known as a silly goose—who is never permitted, thanks to a sympathetic camera, to shrink into a mere victim of circumstance.

And: 

Ophüls characters fall for the wrong people, at the worst possible hour, but the fall itself is no crime; if anything, it is against a backdrop of lovelessness—a graying marriage, say, like a painted stage flat—that the real thing is most likely to emerge. What grips him, in other words, is the stirring of an underused heart.

What, I ask you, does that sound like? But I’m cheating a little bit when I say “drama” (as Lane notes), because Ophüls films, no matter how rife with tautly cinched corset stays or impeccably waxed mustaches, are funny in a misty-eyed kind of way.

Maybe it’s something about being stranded among fusty pretensions in Europe, but the first film I watched, Le Plaisir (1952), based on three Guy de Maupassant stories, captured me instantly. It didn’t matter that everyone was an officer in a jaunty cap or a woman with lace mittens—there was something grotesque about the first sequence, “Le Masque,” in which an elderly man dons a creepy disguise in order to relive his glory days, whirling about in the arms of can-can girls until he almost perishes of heart failure.

Le Plaisir (1952).1 from rod.delarue on Vimeo.

The second sequence, “La Maison Tellier,” introduces the luminous actress Danielle Derrieux, who would be my guide through the other two films. This sequence portrays, I think, with almost insulting accuracy, the deep and true hypocritical nature of a sexually liberated woman, but with arresting thoughtfulness. Derrieux is Madame Rosa, one of many prostitutes in a popular brothel run by Julia Tellier (Madeleine Renaud). When Madame Tellier’s brother invites her to attend her nephew’s first communion, she unceremoniously shutters the brothel and brings all the girls with her to the country for the occasion. Removed from their stigmatized social niches, the prostitutes possess ennobled travel personalities, discussing their imaginary rich husbands with fellow passengers and carrying themselves like duchesses through the town. It’s only during the actual service in the church—like the old expression goes—that they are humbled, but humbled sweetly and serenely, into remembering who they really are.

Then there’s Darrieux in La Ronde (1950), based on a fin de siècle play by Arthur Schnitzler. La Ronde is another vignette-driven film, even more so than Le Plaisir, and feels kind of like a proto-Altman film in its voyeuristic and disjointed style. The stories are mediated by a visible narrator (unlike the voiceovers in Le Plaisir), the Raconteur (Anton Walbrook). In each mini-story, one character segues into the next, aided by the Raconteur’s title card. Thus, it’s an ensemble film where the ensemble never appears all together in the same shot, or anywhere close. The intimacy in each private interview is preserved and we learn to appreciate how one stranger’s seemingly innocuous actions impact the other—a philosophical footnote that would be exploited to the max in modern-day ensemble films like Magnolia (which I still hate—sorry for not being sorry!).


Darrieux’s role in this film is actually a perfect precursor: She’s Emma Breitkopf, or “la femme mariée” (the married woman). We discover her carriage arriving at a clandestinely procured apartment, with a panting Alfred (Daniel Gélin as “the young man”) waiting inside with a bottle of liqueur. In a shocking departure from what we’d see in Hays Code America during this time, the married woman and the young man end up unabashedly in bed together, and the woman hasn’t a regret to darken her brow. In fact, it seems like she’s almost driven by boredom to make love to him. It’s immediately followed by “The Young Woman and Her Husband” episode, in which we now see Emma, daydreaming and tossing about while her wealthy husband balances his accounts in his adjacent bed. Emma, desperate to confide in someone, sparks up an innocent query about her husband’s previous lovers. The exchange that follows is achingly French and embarrassingly realistic. The husband, remarking on her new glow, through some conversational acrobatics, indicates that he both knows about and forbids her dalliance. Having had experiences with married women as a young man, he speaks wistfully and morally all at once. The dialogue is at Shakespeare-level equivocation and it’s shocking in its brilliance. (The play’s original tête-à-tête, by the way, portrays a much more maritorious and squirming wife and isn’t nearly as sharp.) Emma ends the night, guiltless as ever, clasping the hand of her keeper across the space between their royal twin beds.

But the real masterpiece is The Earrings of Madame de... (1953), a Karenina-style tragedy that is less foreboding than it is glamorous and fun. I find it’s kind of easy to conflate La Ronde and Earrings, mostly because the first half of the latter is thematically similar: When Madame Louise de... (Darrieux, natch) sells her diamond earrings back to the local jeweler to bail herself out of a debt unbeknownst to her husband, the General (the equally stunning Charles Boyer), the action somehow spurs a chain of curious circumstances. Eventually, the discarded accessories come into the possession of the dashing Baron Fabrizio Donati (played by Vittorio de Sica—yes, the self-same master director of Italian neorealism), who, through another series of coincidences, meets Madame de.... He’s a diplomat and old friend of the General’s, and also happens to be of a similar flirty disposition as Louise. It becomes clear that they fall in love mostly because they’re two sides of the same coin, gender equivalents of the other in their elegant caddishness, and, well, their love of dancing.

 

Of course, like the description from Rafferty, she falls “too deeply.” Madame de... becomes careless, importunate, hasty. The General, a clever philanderer himself, does all that he can to preserve their social image, which is basically all that seems to concern him about the matter. Like any good politician, his dialogues are the stuff of persuasive genius. It’s the piercing interaction captured in “The Young Woman and Her Husband” scene after scene, and it overmasters everything comfortable about the film—its predictable story arc, gorgeous tableaux, or high drama (I mean, it ends with a duel, for Christ’s sake!). There’s the simple paradigm of their reality that can be talked around, but can never be broken. And Louise throws herself (not in front of a train), but indeed, right through it.

I know I’m being naughty by omitting Ophüls’s final film, Lola Montès, from the discussion. Beyond the others, it’s a film entirely about the exploits of a proto–third-wave feminist and sexually empowered woman. It’s also hilarious, beautiful, and ultimately, terrifying—but it’s of an experimental nature (and in a salacious technicolor) a little more advanced than these three that fit so perfectly together. Also, Lola was cunning enough to ditch her only husband early on and without a second look—and if we’re talking about a true nineteenth-century quality of social imprisonment for a woman it’s got to have the iron chains of wedlock. It fascinates me, yes, but not morbidly; being a wife might be the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but it’s certainly far from a death sentence—it just makes for good drama. 

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