- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

This has been a gratifying year for admirers of Max Ophuls, one of the great romantic sophisticates of movie history.

Mr. Ophuls (1902-57) was a prominent Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. He became a naturalized French citizen in 1938, then fled to Switzerland in 1940 and to the United States two years later. The American phase of his career, which concluded with a quartet of features directed in the late 1940s, was the subject of a National Gallery of Art retrospective in April.

Now the final Ophuls quartet, made after his return to France, will be conspicuously available this month. The Criterion Collection has released DVD editions of “La Ronde,” “Le Plaisir” and “The Earrings of Madame de …” Originally released from 1950 to 1953, they remain the most familiar and esteemed of the Ophuls pictures.

Lingering VHS editions have been in ragged shape for many years, so the reappearance of flattering copies is a holiday blessing. In addition, the last Ophuls movie, “Lola Montes,” begins a revival engagement at the Landmark E Street Cinema on Friday. Presumably, a DVD edition as desirable as the restored trio will appear in 2009.

“Madame de …” the Ophuls classic of classics, will be the subject of a separate appreciation next Sunday. This column welcomes back “La Ronde” and “Le Plaisir,” which sounded like companion pieces, boasted all-star casts and tried to finesse vignette or anthology formats, which enjoyed something of a comeback in the early 1950s.

“La Ronde” derived from a notorious Arthur Schnitzler play of a generation earlier, “Reigen.” The core material, embellished on film by a know-it-all narrator, played by Anton Walbrook of “The Red Shoes,” consists of 10 episodes; they depict encounters between lovers calculated to change partners habitually. The chain of liaisons doubles back to an original participant, played by the young Simone Signoret, allowing author and filmmakers ample room for disillusion and cynicism about human fidelity.

“Le Plaisir” drew on three short stories by Guy de Maupassant. The first and third, “Mask” and “The Model,” are relatively short. The central episode, “The House of Madame Tellier,” amounts to a short feature. The title refers to a small-town brothel in Normandy; the customers are left at a loss one Saturday night when the widowed proprietor, Madeleine Renaud’s Madame Tellier, closes shop in order to attend the first communion of a niece in the countryside.

Somewhat expanded, this story might easily have become a self-contained classic of evocative social comedy and wistful regrets. There were moviegoers who believed Mr. Ophuls and his collaborators should have pinned all their hopes on Madame Tellier & Co. Several sequences tend to beckon for color, given a narration that luxuriates in descriptions of costuming, decor and wildflowers. This was an enhancement that Max Ophuls enjoyed only once, for “Lola Montes.”

Richly envisioned in black-and-white imagery, the story is designed for witty contrasts between the surroundings of Maison Tellier and the rural village that hosts Madame and her five prostitutes for about 24 hours. It never lacks for scenic and atmospheric beguilement. One of the wittiest pictorial devices is to keep the camera peeping at the interiors of the brothel from outside its windows, ground floor and above. It’s as if the camera crew wanted to intrude in the worst way but could never gain entrance, reflecting the plight of the regular clientele on the fateful Saturday night and then Madame Tellier’s brother, a wonderful comic role for Jean Gabin, when he hosts the visitors and suffers a painful crush on one of her ladies, Danielle Darrieux’s Madame Rosa.

In retrospect, “La Ronde” seems the weaker film — certainly in a thematic sense. The Schnitzler scenes belabor the same quality of knowing disdain about the same kind of shortcoming. Fresh revelations about desire and fickleness elude this adaptation. Moreover, everything that proves repetitive and overcalculated about “La Ronde” is summed up brilliantly in the tour-de-force first story of “Le Plaisir.”

This remarkable episode makes the “dance of death” notion pay off with a vengeance. “Mask” begins with a convulsive burst of revelry at a Paris dance hall and concludes with a chilling sense of comic irony after one particular reveler collapses. Unmasked and then escorted back to his garret residence under the care of a doctor played by Claude Dauphin, the victim proves an aging hedonist dependent on the kindness of strangers — and a long-suffering spouse, resigned to the incorrigible desperation of it all.

After the mixture of exhilaration and pathos that distinguish “Mask” and “Madame Tellier,” the third episode of “Le Plaisir” seems anticlimactic and expendable. On the rebound, it’s worth spending some time with a revealing supplement, an account of the production narrated by French scholar Jean-Pierre Berthome. You’ll discover what the three-part structure might have accomplished, if the filmmakers had retained the finale that was originally intended, “Paul’s Mistress.”

This choice had to be abandoned, for reasons of cost and potential censorship trouble, although a lavish outdoor set had already been built for the principal scenes. “The Model” shared certain drastic aspects with the abandoned tale. It could also mirror “Mask” in certain respects, but it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop and quality of provocation that might have belonged to “Paul’s Mistress.” Nevertheless, two-thirds of “Le Plaisir” remains durably stunning.

TITLE: “La Ronde”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (made in France in 1950, years before the advent of the film rating system; thematic emphasis on fleeting erotic and adulterous encounters)

CREDITS: Directed by Max Ophuls. Screenplay by Mr. Ophuls and Jacques Natanson, based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler. Cinematography by Christian Matras. Sets by Jean d’Eaubonne. Costumes by Alain Douarinou. Music by Oscar Straus. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes, plus supplementary material

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.criterionco.com

•••

TITLE: “Le Plaisir”

RATING: No MPAAA Rating (made in France in 1952; occasional erotic candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Max Ophuls. Screenplay by Mr. Ophuls and Jacques Natanson, based on stories by Guy de Maupassant. Cinematography by Christian Matras and Philippe Agostini. Sets by Jean d’Eaubonne. Costumes by Georges Annenkov. Music by Joe Hajos. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes, plus supplementary material

DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection


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