Nov 2002 - Volume 10, Issue 4
The Films of Max Ophuls
by Kathleen Murphy
"But where would people like us get to if we couldn’t get carried away?"
When Max Ophuls died in 1957, his friend and collaborator Peter Ustinov (Le Plaisir’s narrator,
Lola Montès’s Ringmaster) described the director as "a watchmaker intent on making the
smallest watch in the world and then, with a sudden flash of perversity, putting it up on a cathedral."
One takes issue with Ustinov’s somewhat condescending adjective - "smallest" - but the
metaphorical connection of watch and cathedral is wonderfully resonant as a key to Ophuls’s movie
metaphysics. As a film artist, Ophuls can be compared to God as watchmaker, designer of exquisite
cinematic mechanisms - set in motion in fin-de-siècle Vienna or contemporary La-La-land or
timeless Paree. That irresistible motion makes Ophuls’s world go round, carries his actors - and
his audience - away, traps or transforms all those who dance to his Mozartian music.
Circles that count time, watches suggest the little round of human life, the turning of the earth, the
unreeling of a film. Timepieces are significant plot devices in Ophuls’s films, which often revolve
around star-crossed lovers - and repeated variations on the question "What time is it?" signal
ever-pressing mortality, as well as the worldly duties that so regularly interrupt or end transcendent
affairs and assignations. A friend once described Ophuls’s elegant cinematic excursions as "
tracking eternity"; it is the director’s famously long, complex, beautiful tracking shots - and
the power of his lovers’ emotions - that carry them (and the willing viewer) out of time. In The
Earrings of Madame deÉ, Ophuls’s masterpiece, that voluptuous camera movement constitutes the film,
a life, the transformation of a beautiful woman from ornament to essence. Madame deÉ’s pilgrimage
ends in an empty cathedral, architecture which rises up to eternity.
Liebelei (1932), La Signora di tutti (1934), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Caught (1949), The
Earrings of Madame deÉ (1953), And Lola Montès (1955) all contain Ophulsian heroines who are
ensnared and sustained by seductive images of earthly pleasures, or fall from the glittering merry-go-round
of the worldÉinto eternity. Falling in love, plunging from social grace, flinging themselves out windows,
jumping from the heights of circus tents - these courageous or despairing acts are leaps of faith, leaps
into the void. By an act of pure will, Ophulsian women often seek to transmogrify the unsatisfying stuff of
ordinary life into art. Their obsession - or talent - drives them to sanctify or aestheticize their
experiences, mining metaphysical significance from the mundane. But sometimes the machine breaks down,
and beauty is ground up in perpetual motion - like Gaby Doriot’s movie-star portrait endlessly
reproduced on the drum of La Signora di tutti’s printing press.
In La Ronde (1950), Ophuls’s master of the game and manager of the carousel (the incomparable Anton
Walbrook) resembles a worldly-wise watchmaker-god or film director. He sets in motion a rondelay of love
stories, from which one lover always moves on to co-star in the following narrative. Commenting on and
participating in the glancing affairs of the charming players, Walbrook ambles through various times,
seasons and sets, occasionally repairing the beautiful carousel (and editing filmstrips) so as to set
his fictions in proper motion again.
In their efforts to escape the trap of self and time in one boudoir after another, La Ronde’s
lovers waver deliciously between comic and almost tragic postures. ("But at my back I hear time’s
wing’d chariot hurrying near..." might be the mantra of La Ronde’s streetwalker, soldier,
maid, bourgeois, playwright, actress, aristocrat, et al .) In one of the film’s "chapters,"
Ophuls’s camera frames a static bedroom tableau: a rather fatuous older man (Fernand Gravey) and his
lovely young wife (Danielle Darrieux) discuss the demise of desire in married life and recall past,
now-dead passion. Bracketed by two interludes of flesh drawn to warming flesh, in which Ophuls’s
camera was in almost constant motion, this "frozen" scene comes after the wife’s deliberate
and tender seduction of a bedazzled boy and is followed by her husband’s "purchase" of
love from a charming grisette. Worlds away from each other in their separate beds (which seem to float
in a dark void), the couple’s conversation is punctuated by their turning lamps on and off, though
no enlightenment is ever generated. It’s Ophuls’s version of "Waiting for Godot"; in
the foreground, between the beds, a silhouetted clock, its swaying pendulum counting time, looms like a
In Lola Montès, Ophuls’s final masterwork, the carousel-manager has become a circus
ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) who galvanizes a teeming spectacle - or morality play - to re-enact the
titillating history of a world-renowned courtesan (Martine Carol). It’s as though the Ringmaster
has crammed all the world’s eye-catching pageant into his circus rings; this ever-changing parade
of excess snakes around the axis of a frozen figure seated on a turntable, a woman who once lived in
and for motion / emotion, now caught and pinned like a fading butterfly by the greedy eyes of her
audience / fans - whom Ophuls portrays as mostly cardboard figures swallowed up in the darkness outside
the circus "stage."
In many ways, including its flashback structure, La Signora di tutti presages Lola Montès:
the 1934 film begins with a movie star’s crass manager and a studio exec bargaining over her
box-office value; their grasping hands gesticulate over a spinning record, delivering Gaby Doriot’s
lovely, disembodied voice. As a girl, her beauty has drawn lovers to her, as moths to a flame. But, in
the end, off-screen happiness eludes her; Gaby’s image and its power are imprisoned on celluloid,
to serve the appetites of her audience. She has no private life or love; like Lola Montès, Gaby
Doriot (Isa Miranda) moves at the pleasure of the camera. Neither woman can escape the past, the weary
circle of repetition where they turn, rise, fall like shining motes in the public eye, dying suddenly
or slowly from the infection of an audience’s relentlessly consuming gaze, ladies for everyone.
They are framed and frozen in time, in commercialized art.
Caught (1949), Ophuls’s American hybrid of film noir and women’s movie, features another
of the director’s golden girls in pursuit of paradise. Former car-hop Leonora Eames (Barbara
Bel Geddes) stares so longingly at magazine pages advertising gorgeous mannequins decked out in the
accoutrements of wealth, it seems she might will herself into those glossy frames. She daydreams of
being discovered, elevated, by a millionaire Prince Charming. You might say she has bad eyesight, in
Ophulsian parlance: she mistakes a demon lover for her shining prince; Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan),
her Howard HughesÐlike husband, can only see Leonora as a star of his personal "movie" of
woman as gold-digging consumer.
In time, fleeing her gilded cage, Leonora finds another Pygmalion in an idealistic young doctor
(James Mason) who would like to cast her as a down-to-earth nurse and mate. Caught’s heroine -
a department-store model who’s kin to immobile, expressionless Lola Montès - is a void
at the center of the film, evoked during a conversation between the two doctors for whom Leonora
comes to work. The camera cuts back and forth between the two men (Mason and Frank Ferguson), who
stand in opposite doorways as they discuss the truth about their missing receptionist / nurse.
Between them is her desk, her empty chair emphasizing the absence of a woman who can only find
herself in advertisements and men’s eyes. (Though millionaire Smith Ohlrig doesn’t have
as much screen time as Leonora and her goody-two-shoes doctor, Ryan’s mesmerizing performance
and dark, brooding presence overshadow the slight star-power of Bel Geddes; the latter’s lack
of camera-presence makes her character even more of a cipher.)
In contrast to those who become stars in the firmament of men’s eyes, the fin-de-siècle
heroines of Letter from an Unknown Woman and The Earrings of Madame de... refuse to be "framed" -
so often we gaze at them through glass - through someone else’s lens / movie. They break out
existentially, spiritually, visually - composing their own mise-en-scène, directing their
own camera movements. Someone once opined that Ophuls’s movies were "machines for the
creation of saints." Think also: artists. In the penultimate moments of her sublime tragedy,
LETTER’S Lisa Berndl (Joan Fontaine) testifies that, "I know now that nothing happens by
chance; every moment is measured, every step counted." And in her final words to the pianist
Stefan (Louis Jourdan) she has made her religion, she confesses, "My life can be measured by
the moments I shared with you and our child."
From the moment she first hears, then sees, her handsome pianist, Lisa gives birth to herself
(her words) as his proper consort; though after their brief liaison she lives and raises his child
largely alone, she single-mindedly imagines a world in which he serves as organizing principle.
Despite Stefan’s fundamental unworthiness, Lisa composes and predestines her life as
beautifully and as meticulously as any painter or musician; no martyr she, for she has ruthlessly
deployed her Shakespearean gaze from start to finish, powering the whole film back and forth in
time and memory. See Lisa as carousel-mistress and ringmaster as she bids final farewell to her
lover, a minor star whom she’s essentially condemned to ennobling death in a duel: exercising
her directorial control from the grave, Lisa turns back time to raise her own ghost, the 12-year-old
she was when she first laid eyes on her lover and consciously set her star-turn in motion. Only a
child registering the good looks of a young man, but it’s the Ophulsian equivalent of St. Paul’s
epiphany on the road to Damascus.
Throughout Letter, Lisa’s face is illuminated by her (rarely present) lover and his music,
while Stefan, the raw material of her imagination, remains in eternal shadow. (Does her story
require him to be a rotter, insuring her elevation to sainthood?) Letter from an Unknown Woman
indeed: even though she is dead and gone, Lisa’s letter is the primum mobile of a film that
celebrates her utterly focused vision of truth and beauty. Similarly, the identity of Madame de...
(Danielle Darrieux) is located in a titular ellipse and like Gaby Doriot, she is present only by
default - a visual ellipse - as her film begins. Moving busily about her boudoir, from crowded
wardrobe to overflowing jewelry box to cluttered dressing table, her identity is established
through her possessions, her circumscribed itinerary and the sweetness of a recurring musical
Cosseted wife of a proudly inflexible general at the turn of the 19th century, Madame deÉ is
entirely a creature of complex social stricture, architectural detail and decor, the to-ings
and fro-ings, ups and downs, of a doll-house life. But swept away by passion for her lover
(Vittorio de Sica), Madame deÉ waltzes (Ophulsian image of transformative desire) out of aimless,
banal motion / emotion - defined by public opinion - into private, personally directed momentum.
Governed by the art of her unyielding love, her living spaces - the frames of the film - become
increasingly empty of everything but the sculpted light shining from her purified features.
Like her diamond earrings, Madame deÉ metamorphoses from pretty bauble to illuminating icon.
Unseen at film’s start, Madame deÉ vanishes from its final moments within the empty cathedral.
The further she has fallen into passion, the weaker her heart has become, like a clock unsuited
for eternity. Madame deÉ and her lover - each departing off-screen - are propelled outside mundane
frames of reference, beyond world, time and even art, no longer "spectacle" for our or
anyone else’s eyes.
The fates of many Ophulsian heroines hinge on obsession; impractical, reckless, their emotions
lead to suicide, self-abnegation, all manner of tragedy. Quotidian duty and responsibility - as
wife, mother, friend, citizen - are unhesitatingly sacrificed in the rapturous moment. Romantic
heroines to a fault, they choose a dream of heaven over a diminished earthly existence, love
against all. Though all the complicated furniture of the Ophulsian mise-en-scène - costume,
architecture, dŽcor - may conspire to obscure and cut them off from their vision of perfection,
they unerringly find their way to death and transfiguration. Surely they are mad, but their
madness is of the kind that fuels the sacrasexual poetry of the "Song of Solomon" or
Saint Teresa of Avila’s ecstatic prayers.
Some feminist critics have taken Ophuls to task as a male artist who foregrounds the female
visage in the audience’s gaze. But this director’s camera never serves the pleasure
of the consuming male or female gaze by objectifying or commodifying women. As a filmmaker,
he consistently dissects that cinematic synapse where subject and object, viewer and viewed,
meet and take fire. So much so, that a film such as Lola Montès radically deconstructs
the definitions and components of cinema - the art of looking. Ophuls’s movies look back
at us, forcing us to consider the nature of spectatorship, of visual consumerism. Painting with
a moving camera, he forces our eyes to work to follow the intricacies of his narrative itinerary.
His films can’t be reduced to plot machines; for him, dramatic structure and dialogue must
be transcended by "pictorial atmosphere and...shifting images," a veritable visual
Ophuls insists that his audience take responsibility for seeing through his cinematic style,
through the armoring and exposing glass panes of doors and windows; proscenia and stairways
that dwarf the humans who use them; banisters, chairbacks, grillwork, foliage, ropes and all
the other lines and curlicues that stand between our gaze and his players. The act of seeing
is critical - in both senses of the word. Ophuls presents the epistemological apparatus of
his film to the viewer; he means for us to learn how film meaning is created, the way we come
to understand the world he has created for our viewing pleasure.
As we’ve noted, Ophuls again and again measured his pilgrims’ progress toward the
director’s brand of salvation through the transformative power of love’s gaze and
of dance as a means of killing time, dipping into eternity. In the lovely Liebelei (1932),
only Ophuls’s fourth feature, it is love that passeth understanding (to echo Lisa
Berndl’s biblical cadences) that catapults Christine (Magda Schneider), a budding opera
singer, and her soul-mate Fritz (Wolfgang Liebeneiner) out of time, off the various "stages"
where human beings play out their prescribed roles: "I will love you for all eternity...beyond
life itself." Christine and her young soldier are shown waltzing in the flesh, then as mirrored
images, and finally as shadows on the cafe wall. Later, the lovers sleigh through a snow-covered
countryside, a cinematic landscape that’s the natural antithesis of theatre, and by
film’s end, after the two have disappeared from the world and the film, Ophuls again
traverses that landscape, emptied now of even the lovers’ corporeal presence. The
process represents a spiritual distillation, a movement from bodily presence to absence
that can be traced, with variations, in so many of Ophuls’s films.
At Liebelei’s end, Ophuls’s camera pursues Christine’s father and the
couple’s friends as they rush endlessly through the backstage clutter and corridors
of the opera-house on their way to tell Christine the terrible news of Fritz’s death
in a meaningless duel. Finally, the camera stops and holds on Christine’s face for
what seems an age, as she registers, takes in her loss. It’s as though the whole
world is shrinking down into the girl’s agonized visage; nothing exists outside the
grief that seems to literally incandesce her flesh. For something like two awful minutes,
we gaze ever more uncomfortably at her naked emotion, the exposure of a soul as it
transubstantiates from flesh to purest light. This is our - the audience’s - chance
at epiphany, if we’re up to it. Christine’s final apotheosis is achieved off-screen:
an open window is all that marks this saint’s leap out of all cinematic and existential
Christine has exited her movie, something Lola Montès can never manage. By her
film’s end, Lola has leaped, but only into a cage, where she is celebrated not as
a saint of love, but as a wild beast. As she stands - a deadpan mannequin - behind bars,
Ophuls’s camera tracks away from her, down the endless queue of male fans who, for a
dollar, crowd in to view and kiss the hand of their star. This evocation of a Dantean hell
represents the filmmaker’s image of despair, the antithesis of those endings signaled
by the heroine’s escape from our or any eyes. Ophuls might say that in the abyss
between Christine’s window and Lola’s cage lies the lost art of film, done in by
faithless philistines who can be carried away by only the most vulgar performances of
cinematic kiss-kiss, bang-bang.