[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 MontÃ¨s‘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 Ophulsâ€™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-siÃ¨cle Vienna or contemporary La-La-land or timeless Paree. That irresistible motion makes Ophulsâ€™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 Ophulsâ€™s elegant cinematic excursions as â€œtracking eternityâ€; it is the directorâ€™s famously long, complex, beautiful tracking shotsâ€”and the power of his loversâ€™ emotionsâ€”that carry them (and the willing viewer) out of time. In The Earrings of Madame deâ€¦, Ophulsâ€™s masterpiece, that inexorable, voluptuous camera movement constitutes the film, a life, the transformation of a beautiful woman from ornament to essence. Madame deâ€¦â€™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 deâ€¦ (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 worldâ€¦into eternity. Falling in love, plunging from social grace, flinging themselves out windows, jumping from the heights of circus tentsâ€”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 motionâ€”like Gaby Doriotâ€™s movie-star portrait endlessly reproduced on the drum of Il Signora di tuttiâ€™s printing press.