At the Movies

Michael Wood

Lovers of the films of Max Ophuls always return to La Ronde (1950). Its intricate, revolving story, visually represented by a highly stylised carousel, is certainly gracefully told. Each character in the film moves on from one partner to another, prostitute to soldier to servant to rich young man to erring wife to worldly husband to midinette to writer to actress to foppish aristocrat and back to the prostitute, and the narrative seems full of wisdom about the shallows of the human heart. I’ve always found the film entertaining, but have never managed to get really enthusiastic about its jovial worldliness, its elegant pretence that in matters of desire we are always in Vienna in 1900.

Of course there were all kinds of reasons for wanting to get away from the 1950s, if only into a film fantasy, and although Ophuls, after a long spell in America, made his last films in France, with a magnificent repertory of French actors, he kept abandoning the present time and place in his plots: for old Vienna in La Ronde, for the Paris and Normandy of Maupassant in Le Plaisir (1952), for a turn-of-the century Paris, a sort of Vienna of sexual and social style, in Madame de . . . (1953), and for a tour of the European past in his last completed film, Lola Montès (1955). He died in 1957.

We have an opportunity to think about these films and how they play now in the release (by the Criterion Collection) of restored versions of three of them: La Ronde, Madame de . . . and Le Plaisir. La Ronde is sadder and less complacent than I used to think it was – and the shallows of the human heart are a great subject. In Madame de . . . Charles Boyer explains to his wife, in the lucid, pompous and intimately vulnerable manner that Ophuls keeps lending to his older men – the betrayed (and then philandering) husband in La Ronde, played by Fernand Gravey, talks in just the same way – that their marital bliss is ‘made in their image’: ‘It is only superficially that it is superficial.’ What he would like to mean is that there is no reason to go looking for more depths than they have. What he turns out to mean, to his and her distress, is that their life of lovely surfaces is already slipping irrevocably away into disgrace and death. It’s very telling that when he later asks his wife what her illness is, or what is making her suffer – ‘Mais de quoi souffrez-vous exactement?’ – she says without a pause, ‘From humiliation,’ which must be about as deep as shallowness (or for that matter most depths) can get.

La Ronde is still a little slow, though, and everything memorable about it focuses on Danielle Darrieux’s character. Darrieux also plays the title role in Madame de . . . What’s remarkable about her as a film actress is that although she always looks poised and beautiful, and scarcely ever changes her facial expression, she manages to suggest that several quite different persons inhabit this frame: women who are frivolous, stubborn, a little stupid, crafty, sceptical, deeply intelligent, always ahead of the game, never troubled or frightened, always troubled or frightened. In La Ronde, she has a fling with an embarrassed and (at first) impotent young man, and her smooth, agreeable, amazed face is a picture of patience and mild guile. She very soon deals with his problem. In the next scene we see her with her dull sermonising husband, the pair propped up in twin beds like well-to-do dolls, and she is graciously listening to him lecture to her about things she understands far better than he does.

Madame de . . . is the masterpiece people wanted La Ronde to be. It has a similar recurring device, a version of the carousel. A pair of earrings (a husband’s gift to his wife) travels back to the jeweller (she needs the money), then from jeweller to husband (who buys the earrings a second time), from husband to mistress (a farewell gift), from mistress to shop in Constantinople, from shop to the Italian count who gives the earrings, without knowing anything of their history, back to the woman who first owned them. But the device is less obtrusive and whimsical here, and comes to feel less like an element of plotting and more like the displaced object of everyone’s anger, longing and scrambled dignity. The earrings end up on an altar, an offering in support of a futile prayer.

Madame de . . . is a countess. Her husband (Charles Boyer) is a French general, her lover (Vittorio De Sica) an Italian diplomat and a baron. She is called Louise, and the missing surname, which looks like a provocative piece of discretion, falls out of the film in a series of beautifully arranged accidents. Someone interrupts a conversation (more than once) as the name is about to be spoken. At the end of the film the words ‘Madame de’ appear on a card recording the gift of the earrings to the church, but the film frame itself cuts off the completion of the name. The whole movie, in fact, is about what is not named, even when names are being used.

Louise is a frivolous and vain woman who finds, in a mixture of passionate love and equally passionate humiliation, the depths she thought she didn’t have. Remorseful and desperate, she goes to see her former lover, and murmurs to him that she is not even pretty any more. He says, ‘More than ever,’ and she perks up at once. ‘Really?’ she says. And then adds: ‘I’m incorrigible.’ She is incorrigible, but her faults are slight compared to those of the two men in her life, a pair of elegant society fellows who entitle themselves to act with any amount of cruelty in defence of their threatened pride. It’s part of the strange, graceful compassion of the film that we are in no doubt about their suffering, even as their behaviour seems more and more unforgivable.

But the real discovery among these films for me was the first part of Le Plaisir, the only one of the set I hadn’t seen before. The work is composed of three tales based on stories by Maupassant; the middle one, ‘La Maison Tellier’, all about the joys of brothel life for properly urbane and tolerant people, is the best known. The last one, ‘The Model’, shows us a painter’s mistress flinging herself from a high window because he has left her. She manages only to cripple herself severely, and he marries her out of guilt. His work as a painter gets better and better. In an epilogue that appears in the film but not in the printed story, the narrator suggests that such a result is in fact ‘happiness’. A companion suggests it’s rather sad all the same. The narrator, in a phrase that catches the Ophuls magic without making it seem too easy or too weary, says happiness is not light-hearted: ‘Mon cher, le bonheur n’est pas gai.’

But the first part of the film, ‘The Mask’, is genuinely unforgettable. It’s set up by a voice speaking from a black screen in the person of Maupassant himself – the dead writer, not the narrator of any of his stories. He’s a little sceptical about what ‘the living’ make of life. Then the story starts. We are at a dance hall, a place that instantly reminds us how much Ophuls loved, and how much he could make of, crowds and interiors – there are similar, if posher, ball scenes in Madame de . . . Doorways, balconies, glass partitions, multiple floors, lots of bouncing, jostling people, a camera that glides among them, and over them, with the gaze of a curious but unobtrusive god: Ophuls sets up these encounters again and again. Into the crowd at the dance hall prances a figure in top hat and tails, a man so eager for the dance he can hardly wait to shed his scarf and coat. There he is in the midst of the hopping fray, a little too rigid and too keen to be entirely human. A ghost, perhaps, or a demon, or an automaton? Then he collapses, and we learn who he is: an old man in a young man’s mask. A doctor takes him home, and learns the man’s story from his wife. He was a well-known hairdresser, had many mistresses, was even rich. Now all he can do is disguise himself and haunt the dance halls, hoping to catch a little of the life that throbs there. Why does he have to do it, the doctor asks. The wife says, in a line that is even better, more tender, more acrid and more beautiful than the remark about happiness in the other story: ‘C’est le regret, monsieur.’ Which doesn’t exactly translate into ‘regret’ in English; just into the longing for what can’t come back, the times and adventures the old man once knew. He just can’t believe there is nothing to be done, and this segment of the movie ends with the doctor, infected by the story that should have made him wiser, asking his coachman to take him back to the dance. We get the feeling that were Maupassant not so undeniably dead he would be at the Palais himself, or at least doing something other than providing Ophuls with a convenient and friendly ghost. But of course it is Ophuls who makes us see Maupassant in this light, and not the other way round.