June 12, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Max Ophuls’s The Earrings of Madame de…

The Earrings of Madame de…. 1953. France. Directed by Max Ophuls

These notes accompany the screenings of Max Ophuls’s The Earrings of Madame de…on June 13, 14, and 15 in Theater 3.

A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he’d never smile again.

This amusing doggerel was composed by James Mason, who acted in the last two films Max Ophuls made in America (Caught and The Reckless Moment) before the director returned to Europe for the glorious half-decade that preceded his tragic death from heart disease in 1957. (Ironically, it was these Ophuls films that launched Mason’s distinguished Hollywood career, which would last well into the 1980s.) Mason’s affectionate poem was a clever commentary on the director’s predominant stylistic motif. As critic Myron Meisel put it, Ophuls’s “peripatetic camera never pauses an instant, recording each inexorable, unalterable, painfully passing moment, and instilling every fabulously intricate tracking shot with breathtaking grace.”

Andrew Sarris, who considers Ophuls the greatest of directors and The Earrings of Madame de… the greatest film ever made, famously wrote:

“This is the ultimate meaning of Ophulsian camera movement: time has no stop. Montage tends to suspend time in the limbo of abstract images, but the moving camera records inexorably the passage of time, moment by moment. As we follow the Ophulsian characters, step by step, up and down stairs, up and down streets, and round and round the ballroom, we realize their imprisonment in time. We know that they can never escape, but we know also that they will never lose their poise and grace for the sake of futile desperation. They will dance beautifully, they will walk purposively, they will love deeply, and they will die gallantly, and they will never whine or whimper or even discard their vanity.”

The Earrings of Madame de…. 1953. France. Directed by Max Ophuls

Dave Kehr goes even further than Sarris, calling The Earrings of Madame de… “one of the most beautiful things ever created by human hands.” Since I don’t fundamentally disagree with either Sarris or Kehr, this leaves me with very little to add. The great cinema Romantics tended to be of European origin: Ophuls, Renoir, Sternberg, Murnau, and Chaplin. (Maine-born John Ford was also a Romantic, but American mythology was so predominant in his emotions and instincts that there was little room left for personal or erotic relationships.) Of these five, Ophuls was the only one to voluntarily move back to Europe—Renoir made his postwar films abroad but returned to the California sunshine to live—and, frankly, it is doubtful that he could have attained equal status as an artist if he had continued to work in Hollywood. His work there was excellent, and Letter from an Unknown Womanwas a highly personal masterpiece, but Ophuls was unlikely to find much empathy among Hollywood moguls for his philosophy in the Cold War era.

Danielle Darrieux just celebrated her 95th birthday. (She has been making movies since 1931!) She appeared in Ophuls’s La Ronde and starred in both Le Plaisir and The Earrings of Madame de…. Ophuls’s son, Marcel, considered her his father’s favorite actress and lamented that his documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity, made long after Max’s death, had to call attention to her collaboration with the Nazi occupation. Jean Renoir’s most interesting heroine was probably Anna Magnani in La Carrosse d’ or (The Golden Coach) (which we will be showing in this series August 15–17). Josef von Sternberg, of course, relied on Marlene Dietrich in seven of his greatest and most romantic films, beginning with The Blue Angel and Morocco. Both Magnani and Dietrich strike me as being mistresses of all situations, with a resiliency and a strong sense of irony. On the other hand, Darrieux, Joan Fontaine in Letter from an Unknown Woman, and Martine Carol in Lola Montes (Ophuls’s last completed film) seem more passive, more accepting of the vicissitudes of life. So, while all three directors are feminists, Ophuls’s women seem to be more prone to go with the flow, as exemplified by his camera movement.

Andrew Sarris’s summation of Ophuls’s art concludes with, “It will all end in a circus with Lola Montes selling her presence to the multitudes, redeeming all men both as a woman and an artistic creation, expressing in one long receding shot, the cumulative explosion of the romantic ego for the past two centuries.” While Max lay dying in Hamburg, the money men were mutilating Lola Montes. (There was a time in my not-brief-enough career in film distribution in the late 1960s when I thought I had the only print of what survived of the Ophuls cut under my desk.) Actually, Romanticism is Romanticism, and reality is reality; it didn’t end in a New Orleans circus. It ended in a Hamburg hospital room and Lola’s nondescript grave in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.