Carousels, Circuses And Cathedrals: The Film Art of Max Ophuls

[Originally written in November, 2002 for the “Luminous Psyche” film series “The Films of Max Ophuls”]

“But where would people like us get to if we couldn’t get carried away?” –Max Ophuls

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.

"Lola Montes" Falling from social grace to center ring
"Lola Montes" - Falling from social grace to the center ring

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 de…, Ophuls’s masterpiece, that inexorable, voluptuous camera movement constitutes the film, a life, the transformation of a beautiful woman from ornament to essence. Madame de…’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 de… (1953), and Lola Montes (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 world…into 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 Il Signora di tutti’s printing press.

In La Ronde (1953), 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.

Lovers tarry in "La Ronde"

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 bedoom tableau: a rather fatuous older man (Fernand Gravet) and his lovely young wife (Danielle Darrieux) discuss the demise of desire in married life and recall past, 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 gravemarker.

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.

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 (Louis Jourdan) she has made her religion, she confesses, “My life can be measured by the moments I shared with you and our child.”

Joan Fontaine as Lisa and Louis Jordan as Stefan in "Letter From an Unknown Woman"

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 phrase.

Cosseted wife of a proudly inflexible general at the turn of the 19th century, Madame de… 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 de… 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 de… metamorphoses from pretty bauble to illuminating icon. Unseen at film’s start, Madame de… 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 de… 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 Earrings of Madame de..."
Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio de Sica in "The Earrings of Madame de..."

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, decor–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’ 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 symphony.

At her film’s end, Lola Montes follows the trajectory of so many Ophulsian heroines by leaping from a great height, but she falls not into transcendence but 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 jostling male fans who, for a dollar, crowd in to view and kiss the hand of their star. This Dantean version of cinematic hell is the antithesis of those endings signaled by his heroine’s escape from our or any eyes. For Ophuls, Lola’s cage and fans evoke what he saw as the declining 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.

Kathleen Murphy

© 2002 Kathleen Murphy

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One Comments

  • Jonathan Kiefer

    October 22, 2008

    Thanks for this. Just the primer I was looking for while waiting impatiently for the restoration/re-release of Lola Montes.

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