THE PLEASURE OF SEEING: THE SUBLIME CINEMA OF MAX OPHULS a retrospective at Cinematheque Ontario (Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas West), from Friday (November 9) to December 9. 416-968-FILM. Rating: NNNNN
The strenuous tone of cinematheque Ontario's program notes for this indispensable retrospective of the films of Max Ophüls indicates what a tough sell they think he will be. They've got a point. Though Ophüls is an easy director to watch, in these overheated times he's a difficult one to appreciate. He's old-fashioned in a challenging way.
A practitioner of complex and fluid camera movements, Ophuls made films over three decades, from the early 1930s to the mid 50s, but aside from his flirtation with film noir in the late 40s, his favourite settings were the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, pre-World War I, certainly and pre-automobile and telephone if possible. And pre-therapy, absolutely.
In his tragic love stories, no one says, "Oh, get over it and move on."
What's a contemporary audience, used to talking out problems, to make of a character like Joan Fontaine's in Letter From An Unknown Woman (Sunday, November 11, 1 pm)? The slightly naive young character is obsessively in love with a man (Louis Jourdan) who barely realizes she exists. When they meet 10 years after he abandoned her, he doesn't remember her. (It's like being in love with the guy from Memento, except Jourdan's Stefan Brand doesn't have a "condition" - he's just a prick.) She goes to him like a person going to a firing squad, powerless over her own emotions.
Ophüls creates a totally artificial world, both morally (in its carefully controlled politesse and social rules) and visually. He was very much a creature of the studio, the better to control the light and the easier to move the camera.
His rare forays into the actual outdoors often come as visual shocks. He creates artificial gardens populated by real snakes, films that compare the love we want with the love we get.
The retrospective begins Friday (November 9, 7:30 pm) with The Earrings Of Madame De , a rare film that critical blood enemies Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris both called one of the greatest films ever made. I can't argue with that assessment.
The titular jewellery passes back and forth, from husband to wife to pawnbroker to lover to wife, destroying a marriage and two lives. Ophüls's trademark long takes, always fluid, suddenly seem implacable.
He was a great director of actors, and Madame De... has three of the greatest star performances in movie history, by Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica and Danielle Darrieux, who in a 65-year film career (at 90, she's still working) is never better than she was here and in La Ronde (December 1, 7:30 pm).
If you're sampling, I highly recommend Ophüls's two forays into film noir, Caught (November 16, 7:30 pm) and The Reckless Moment (November 23, 7:30 pm.) For one thing, you can look at the characters without the barrier of a period setting - postwar California had cars and telephones, and none of the women wear bustles.
These films are rarities. The Reckless Moment has never had a North American video release, and since it belongs to Columbia, which displays a striking disregard for its back catalogue, who knows when it will get one?
Caught stars Barbara Bel Geddes as a working-class nurse who marries up, bagging a rich millionaire played by Robert Ryan at his most neurotic. (Ryan was said to have based his performance on Howard Hughes, at the time the head of RKO). Married to a controlling weirdo, she's increasingly drawn to James Mason's dedicated slum doctor.
In The Reckless Moment, Joan Bennett plays a mother whose teenaged daughter's inappropriately older boyfriend turns up dead on her beach. She hides the body, only to have a blackmailer (Mason again) show up on her doorstep. If that synopsis sounds familiar, it's because the film was remade in 2001 as The Deep End. One of the astonishing things about old movies is how much they pack into small packages, all without resorting to any sort of fast cutting. This is fundamentally the same movie as the remake, yet it's 20 minutes shorter.
Ophüls had a good eye for underappreciated female actors. Bennett had an odd run in the 40s as the go-to lead for European directors in Hollywood (Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir). Here, she plays a controlling mother suddenly thrown into a situation where she controls nothing.
If we can believe the Amazon listings, the only Ophüls film with a currently available North American DVD is Lola Montès (November 15, 7:30 pm), in an appa lling transfer from Fox Lorber.
So unless you want to start ordering from Europe, this is your best chance to see the work of a great director.