Saturday, March 22, 2008

Circles and spirals, and the benefits of spending time on the dole when you're young.

I've loved Max Ophuls' films since the BBC showed a short season about 15 years ago. I was in the midst of my dole/temp daytime tv years at the time, so an afternoon spent indoors watching films like 'The Reckless Moment' or 'Letter from an Unknown Woman' was both a cheap and priceless joy.

I picked up Ophuls' 'Madame de...' about six months ago and it's sat on my shelf since then (alongside the 30 or so other DVDs I never get time to watch), until I finally dusted it off the other night.In some ways, the story is a typical 19th-century-novel-style tale - a flighty and flirtatious married countess falls in love with an Italian diplomat, leading to an overwhelming and ultimately destructive passion - it could fit in alongside 'Anna Karenina' or 'Effi Briest' - but then, as with all Ophuls films, the actual plot isn't what pulls you in, it's how the story is so brilliantly conveyed through his use of camera and sound, and the highly sophsticated but deceptively simple way he reveals character.
One of the themes of 'Madame de...' is fate - the plot is moved along by a set of earrings which the countess pretends to lose at the beginning of the film - lying to her husband, from whom they were a gift, in the process - but which she actually sells to a jeweller to pay off some debts. The earrings move around owners and countries until they come back to the countess, now loaded with a whole different significance, transforming them from inessential trinkets into symbols of an almost addictive and debilitating passion. Exemplifying the theme, Ophuls often uses the same camera angles and practically the same shots when filming scenes in the same location but months or even years apart, stressing the almost pre-ordained nature of the characters' actions - it's like once they set their path, they're stuck in a groove, able only to repeat the actions of the past.

One of the greatest sequences is that which shows the countess and the diplomat falling in love. Arranging to meet at a series of dances - the only times when they can, without too much suspicion, be physically close to one another - Ophuls segues elegantly between four locations, four dances, all the while keeping the music, and even the movement of the characters in their dance, continuous. Not only is the sequence seemless, but at the same time as the characters are spinning around in each other's arms (each one repeatedly taking the place of the other, emphasising their perfect fit) and moving round the bandstand, the camera is moving around with them. If you were to plot out the movements of camera and actors throughout the sequence it would look like a spirograph drawing, but on screen it's incredibly powerful and effortlessly effective. And later in the film, during another dance, the camera moves through the ballroom, even through walls, to stay with the couple, emotionally echoing their feelings for each other - they literally can't take their eyes off each other, can't bear to be apart - and we as an audience are made to feel that too. (As an extra on the disc, there's an interview with the filmmaker Alain Jessua, who worked as an assistant to Ophuls and who talks about how much he valued the actors, and that these long and complicated takes were intended to aid performance, by giving a continuity to the emotions of a scene.)

The performances throughout are great (including another director, Vittorio de Sica (The Bicycle Thieves) as the Italian diplomat) and what's really great is that all the roles are given some complexity, including the husband, who initially turns a blind eye to his wife's flirtations - because he's got affairs of his own going on - but who can't bear to see the pain that living without her lover brings her.
It's often mentioned how elegant Ophuls is, and his camera movements are brilliantly smooth and considered and powerful, but he's also quite a tough director - he can really make his characters suffer, especially in the name of love (never more so than in 'Letter From and Unknown Woman'). In 'Madame de..' he takes a couple who almost pride themselves on their superficiality and condemns them to feel more deep emotions than they can ultimately handle. Like the earrings which cause all the trouble, his films are both glittering and diamond-tough.

No comments: