If you know anything about the German director Max Ophüls, you probably know Stanley Kubrick’s famous quote to the effect that his camera could pass through walls. Watching the BFI’s new sumptuous restoration of 1953’s Madame de…, one of his final films, it’s easy to see what Stanley meant. James Mason, who worked with Kubrick and Ophüls, wrote a short poem about the director’s visual sweep:
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.
What does all this mean for the film? Well, for a start, it’s an uncanny match of style and subject matter. Contemporary British directors like William Oldroyd and Andrea Arnold have been praised for paring back the costume drama and finding something unique within; Ophüls manages a similar reinvention of the French period genre through the exact opposite method. His tendency is to compulsively elaborate on his source material, from the script to the cinematography. This is enjoyable first of all as pure spectacle, but in Madame de… it cuts deeper. Madame de… is a story about how apparently decorative, flamboyant things can mean an awful lot.
Its heroine Louise, played by Danielle Darrieux, is a society woman going through hard times. In order to maintain her lifestyle, she sells a pair of earrings that her husband André (Charles Boyer) bought her; she hides this from him by saying they were stolen from her at the opera. Naturally, a wealthy woman being robbed at the opera becomes a news story, and the lie becomes harder and harder to hide – not least when a wealthy Italian baron, played well by the legendary director Vittorio de Sica, buys the earrings.
Ophüls was attracted to the story because of the slightness of the inciting incident, and there’s something remarkable about how he embroiders Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin’s slight comic novella into a grand tragedy. Watching Madame de… I was reminded of the academic theory that Shakespeare began writing Othello as a comedy, but found its incidents were impossible to resolve as anything other than a tragedy. Madame de… is not a tragic figure at the start: she’s spoiled, self-pitying and overprivileged. The tragedy comes from such a grand figure being brought down by the smallest decision, and by the end, it’s become a fine tragedy indeed.
But Ophüls’s style is about much more than excess. He hated close-ups, feeling that emotions which could only be appreciated when the audience had nothing else to focus on weren’t worth filming. He hired Darrieux because of the subtlety of her technique, a subtlety which is on full display in Madame de…, noting that “when she smiled, her eyes started crying”. His use of dolly shots and pans also liberates him from the conventional film grammar of the time, allowing him to show two characters developing a relationship not through a conventional montage or series of dialogue scenes, but a grand run of sweeping shots of them dancing through ballrooms together.
Ophüls achieved this effect by careful redressing of his one ballroom set, one of the many insights into his working technique offered by the BFI’s generous extras. The main event is Dominique Maillet’s hour-long documentary Max Ophüls, Painter of Fatal Love, an indulgent, fond reunion of the surviving cast and crew. From the title down it does occasionally feel like the director and interviewees are competing to say the most stereotypically French thing possible, but it’s worth looking at the German emigre director in the context of the French cinema he worked so frequently in. His films were among the few post-war French movies that the Nouvelle Vague took to their heart, and a number of interviewees comment on Truffaut’s deep love for Ophüls.
Although the politicised, modernist, aggressive films of Truffaut’s colleague Jean-Luc Godard might seem worlds apart from Ophüls’s gilt-edged romanticism, there is a connection between his work and Madame de… The titular joke, that we never quite catch Louise and André’s surname, is repeated in Godard’s Made In USA. It’s a sign, perhaps, that even people whose tastes and concerns might seem very different from Ophüls’s high-society glitz and melancholy will find plenty to stimulate and intrigue in his work.