"There's something almost vulgar about trying to describe what [Max Ophuls'] camera does," says Todd Haynes in a DVD extra for Le Plaisir, one of three Ophuls films released this week by the Criterion Collection. The fluid elegance of Ophuls' camera is so subtle, and so organic to the storytelling, that at times the apparatus seems to be attached directly to the viewer's psyche. Ophuls'mise-en-scène (a much-abused film theory term that, if it exists to describe anything at all, exists to describe his movies) is formally staggering, but never clever for clever's sake. His best films—and these three rank among them—function equally as master classes in the craft of cinema and as grand entertainments.
La Ronde, Le Plaisir, and The Earrings of Madame De … were made in 1950, '51, and '53, after Ophuls' emigration to France. (A German Jew, he had fled the Nazi regime to work in the United States in the early '30s.) All three are literary adaptations: La Ronde from an Austrian stage play, Le Plaisir and The Earrings from masterworks of French fiction. And all three feature Danielle Darrieux, the actress who became the muse for Ophuls' fusion of world-weary irony and melting romanticism. (Darrieux fans should note that, at 91, she's still full of both; she voiced the grandmother in last year's animated film Persepoliswith wisdom and raunchy wit.)
La Ronde tells a series of stories of erotic enchantment and disappointment, linked by a device in which one character from each liaison appears in the next segment with a new partner (thus illustrating the cyclical, endlessly replaceable nature of romantic love). A man (Jean-Louis Barrault) who flamboyantly seduces one lover anxiously awaits the slightest sign of favor from the next; a womanizer (Daniel Gélin) suddenly becomes impotent with his true love (Darrieux). The whole spectacle is held together, and occasionally torn apart, by the appearances of a bemused narrator in evening clothes (Anton Walbrook) who identifies himself as "the personification of your desire to know everything."
Le Plaisir tells a trilogy of stories: a Poe-like tale about a masked dancer at a revel, a rural idyll about a village madam's journey to her niece's christening, and a bohemian love story with a ghoulish final twist. These tales are bound together less inexorably, and less stylishly, than the serial hookups of La Ronde, but they're still gems of psychological insight and suspense: Without giving away the shock ending of that last one, I can say that the final scene of Vertigo is earthbound by comparison.
The Earrings of Madame De … is the best-known of the three films in the Criterion release, the most likely to have been taught in a college film class or excerpted in a documentary. And sure enough, it delivers on the hokey promise that a classic should offer something new with every viewing. For example, when I watched it this week after the collapse of the financial markets, the movie read as a trenchant parable about capitalism. Darrieux plays an aristocratic woman who secretly sells a pair of earrings to pay off a debt, then watches as their circulation through the economy slowly brings on her personal and financial ruin. The earrings' meaning keeps changing with the context: They are a symbol of devotion, a proof of adultery, a ticket out of Constantinople. Like the lovers in La Ronde (or like shares traded on the stock market), the earrings' value is never absolute; they're only as good as their last transaction.
All these correspondences and symmetries may sound academic on paper, but on celluloid Ophuls' ideas shimmer and float. He loves to place his actors like jewels in fine settings, staging the action behind filigreed iron gates, against swagged curtains, through patterns etched on glass, and reflected in countless mirrors. Every frame may be exquisitely composed, but the effect is never static. More than mobile, the camera is febrile, snaking up stairwells and through walls as though incapable of rest, using the architecture of the set to tell the story. James Mason, whom Ophuls directed in two American films, wrote a poem about his director's notorious love for moving shots of all kinds:
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.
These three DVDs are packaged separately in high Criterion style, with thoughtful introductions from directors such as Haynes and Paul Thomas Anderson, insert booklets full of scholarly essays, and an interview with the director's son, documentary filmmaker Marcel Ophuls (The Sorrow and the Pity, Hearts and Minds). We may be at the cusp of an Ophuls revival: A Cinemascope restoration of his first color film, Lola Montes, will be touring the country in October. If Criterion is as serious about cataloging his work as it is, say, the entire oeuvre of Wes Anderson (Lord knows I shelve Bottle Rocket right next to Rashomon on my mantelpiece), they should consider putting out Ophuls' American movies, which include the engagingly pulpy "women's pictures" Letter From an Unknown Woman and Caught. Ophuls died at the age of 54, just four years after the release of The Earrings of Madame De … . Had he lived to make movies into the '60s, the golden age of intellectually ambitious filmmaking, Ophuls would surely be regarded on a par with Kubrick or Antonioni or Bergman. As it is, he'll just have to settle for being secretly better.