Browse Author

Kathleen Murphy

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.

Keep Reading