Max Ophuls acquired an enviable reputation both on-screen and behind the scenes.
Most actors, male or female, loved him, and if technicians complained of the amount of work necessitated by his remarkably fluent and complex long takes involving tracks and cranes, they usually succumbed to his charm, patience, and dedication. It is Lola Montès, in Ophuls’s last film, of the same name, who tells us that “for me, life is movement,” but she clearly speaks for her director. He was faithful to the principle on many levels. In the course of his career he made films in various countries and languages (German, Italian, French, Dutch, and English—two of his finest were made in Hollywood), settling in France after World War II for his final output of fully achieved, mature masterpieces.
Clearly, Ophuls loved, and (up to a point) identified with, women: the great majority of his films are strongly female-centered. Yet one hesitates to call him a feminist, with the overtones that term has accrued over the years. Legend has it (and as John Ford once told us, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”) that he invariably took cut flowers to his mistresses but potted plants to his wife—a habit that has a certain outmoded charm but would not go down well today. Even in the complex couplings of La ronde, our sympathies are generally directed toward the women, the men (especially the older ones, the patriarchs) frequently self-centered and insensitive. The Ophuls woman is invariably defeated, dying, perhaps, of heart failure when her husband kills her lover in a duel over her (Louise in The Earrings of Madame de . . .), or trapped, like Lola Montès in her (literal) cage, or in the case of The Reckless Moment, where Mrs. Harper temporarily assumes the head of the household, replaced, once again by the returning patriarch.
It is in the four late French films (La ronde, Le plaisir, The Earrings of Madame de . . . , and Lola Montès), all of which are mostly centered on women, that Ophuls’s obsession with mobile camera work is allowed its fullest liberty and extravagance. Some find it excessive, a mannerism reveled in for its own sake, but there is generally a justification for what may look like self-indulgence: after all, if for Ophuls “life is movement,” then this constant mobility is the expression of a metaphysic. On the other hand, some tend to underestimate or denigrate his American films because, defeated by the long-established Hollywood shooting style, he was unable to pursue his love of camera mobility to his desired extremes. Yet were I asked to name his five finest films, two of them, Letter from an Unknown Woman and The Reckless Moment, would be from the Hollywood period. The latter especially shows his adaptability to different aesthetic/practical circumstances: it’s so completely an American movie but with a subtlety, a fineness, and a precision that belong essentially to Ophuls. Tracks and cranes are still there in abundance, but they are meticulously disciplined, never merely decorative, always at the service of the narrative.
It is central to the Ophulsian view of human existence that there are no happy endings in his films. The botched ending of Caught (the third of his American movies) was perhaps intended as one, but by the producers rather than the director, and the traditional “happy ending” of The Reckless Moment (restoration of the American family) is among the bleakest in all of Ophuls. There are overt tragedies (La signora di tutti, very early, Lola Montès, very late), plus Liebelei, Letter from an Unknown Woman, and The Earrings of Madame de . . . , made in three different countries and languages, spanning his career, but forming an obvious trilogy with a recognizable recurring narrative structure: all three are romantic love stories culminating in the lover’s duel with a military man (Ophuls hates military men, stiff and inflexible), which is more like an execution; in both Unknown Woman and Madame de . . . , the executioner is the woman’s husband.
A lover of constant movement, Ophuls knew that, because of its very nature, life can never be fully satisfying, complete, or unambiguously happy. His world is full of unresolvable contradictions, a trait most explicitly developed in the central section of Le plaisir. That is why, despite their lack of happy endings, his films celebrate life.
Le plaisir, like its immediate predecessor, La ronde, is a film of episodes, based upon a literary text (here not a play by Arthur Schnitzler but three separate stories by Guy de Maupassant). Its unusual three-part structure suggests an altarpiece in which a vast central canvas, taking up more than half the space, is flanked by two much smaller items, tending to the dark in the outer ones, bathed in an illusory sunlight in the great centerpiece. But there is also a progression through the three stories, to which I shall return.
Throughout Le plaisir, Ophuls is scrupulously faithful to Maupassant’s texts, yet one always senses a subtle difference in sensibility that can be summed up in one word: cynicism, pervasive in Maupassant, almost totally absent in Ophuls. Maupassant’s cynicism is his way of looking down on his characters, establishing his man-of-the-world superiority. Ophuls substitutes tenderness and never sets himself apart. I usually cry at an Ophuls movie, never at a Maupassant story. Even the apparently cynical ending (not in the Maupassant) that Ophuls gives to the first tale, “The Mask”—the doctor, thinking he has learned his lesson, rushing out to get back to the dance—does not come across as cynical: after all, again, life is movement. But the clearest way to show the difference in sensibility is to consider the climax of the third story, “The Model,” in text and film. Maupassant’s handling of the desperate model Joséphine’s attempted suicide is very simple and objective: “she hurried past me, past him, crossed the balustrade, and disappeared.” Ophuls, identifying himself as usual with the woman, has her rush up a flight of stairs, at which point the camera takes her place, becomes Joséphine, forcing the viewer to plunge vertiginously into darkness.
One can follow, through the three tales, a clear progression in the women’s positions. The wife in the first story, bitter, left at home every night while her aging husband cavorts in the local palais de danse in his concealing mask of youth, is totally complicit in his obsession, even proud of him in her servitude; the women of the middle episode, “The Tellier House,” are prostitutes in the town brothel (presented as a necessary social institution), exerting a certain power over men and, in the case of Madame Rosa, beginning to glimpse possibilities beyond the brothel; in the third story the woman, acting out against the painter and lover who has kept her as though an object, rebels in the only way open to her: the attempted suicide.
If Ophuls had had his way, the third story would have gone much further. His first choice was Maupassant’s “Paul’s Mistress,” in which a sensitive and vulnerable young man accompanies his girlfriend for a weekend on the Seine. They quarrel, she walks out, he searches for her and finds her engaged in sexual activities with a group of lesbians. His ego thoroughly undermined, he drowns himself. Even though the story got the production company’s go-ahead (an elaborate set was built on the riverside, and Daniel Gélin and Simone Simon were cast in the leads), when the company ran out of money, production was suspended, and a new company stepped in and promptly vetoed “Paul’s Mistress.” The reason may well have been the great international success of La ronde: the same success was anticipated for Le plaisir, but “Paul’s Mistress” would never have made it past the American censors. (Fifteen years later, Godard used the story, in rough outline and with no on-screen sex, in Masculin féminin.) Ophuls then had the dual task of choosing a replacement that could satisfy his overall plan for presenting increasingly rebellious women and also of accommodating Gélin and Simon, who were under contract. “The Model” carries the film at least to the woman’s defiance and her bitterly won dominance; “Paul’s Mistress” would have carried it to open rebellion.
Excellent in their intelligence, precision, and virtuosity as the flanking episodes of “The Mask” and “The Model” are, it is the central story to which one repeatedly returns, always with the pleasure promised by the film’s title, but a pleasure deeply disturbed by undercurrents, by a sense of loss in the midst of jouissance, by intimations of mortality. It is surely among Ophuls’s supreme gifts to us.
We are introduced to the brothel (the Maison Tellier), situated in the heart of a Normandy town, on a typical night. Ophuls’s camera never allows us inside but moves around, up, down, allowing us to peer in at the windows. Outside, the customers (sailors and workers for the café, businessmen and town dignitaries for the women) are assembling and entering. Inside, the widowed Madame Tellier is doing her rounds, closing the windows, through which we glimpse the women preparing for their night’s work: they appear cheerful enough, contented with their lot. The circling, rising, briefly pausing camera shows us that the windows have bars, but there is nothing prisonlike about the decor: flowers in abundance, bright lights, music . . . a decidedly civilized brothel, with any suggestion of the sordid negated by the brilliance. Yet the suggestion of entrapment is always there, in the mobile camera’s refusal to enter, weaving an invisible web around the building.
What we have been shown is clearly offered as a “typical” night. What follows is clearly atypical: a night when the lights are out, the house is deserted, and civilization falls apart. Within minutes, the businessmen, the local bigwigs, their evening’s fun denied them, are squabbling, cursing, almost coming to blows. When at last they disperse, one lingerer finds the answer, on a paper that has dropped from the door. The entire team has gone on a daylong trip to the country, to attend the first Communion of Madame Tellier’s young niece. The middle story echoes, in miniature, the tripartite structure of the film: brothel/country/brothel.
The story then reveals an Ophuls we might never have anticipated; we do not readily associate the auteur of La ronde and Lola Montès with nature. Renoir may well have been an influence on the country sequences of Le plaisir, and the presence of Jean Gabin (his only Ophuls movie) strengthens this. Yet when we adjust to the setting, we find Ophuls’s presence pervasive. At the heart of the film’s symmetry is the brief, evanescent, unconsummated love affair of Madame Tellier’s brother Joseph (Gabin) and Madame Rosa (Danielle Darrieux), whose night sleeping with and comforting Joseph’s young daughter has awakened in her the tenderness of motherhood. The church scene is justly celebrated, with Rosa leading the congregation in an epidemic of tears—the tears of lost innocence—which in its turn encourages a mutual attraction at once sensual and spiritual, impossible of fulfillment in the Ophulsian world, where life is movement. Their embryonic romance will end even as it begins. Joseph may indeed call on Madame Rosa on his next visit to town, but their meeting will be as customer and prostitute.
That fleeting moment of mutual attraction is at the core of Ophuls’s symmetry—one might say that Le plaisir is built around it: the only healthy romantic pairing in the entire film, and quite impossible of realization, the ultimate Ophuls love story, nipped in the bud by both Joseph’s elderly wife and Madame Tellier, who needs Madame Rosa for her establishment. Going outward from this central connection, Ophuls gives us the two train journeys, to and from the country; two sequences surveying the Maison Tellier; and finally the two outer short stories, flanking the central, inner one. In both of these—which conform well to the dictates of the Ophulsian unhappy ending—the woman is trapped, in the first case by her own perverse loyalty to a husband she despises, and in the other by being confined to a wheelchair and to a husband whose actions are motivated purely by guilt. For them, tragically, life is immobility.