A true cosmopolitan, Max Ophüls directed films in five different countries and five different languages. And yet there's a consistency to his work that has made the German-born Frenchman, who spent some crucial years in Hollywood, an auteurist's dream come true. Themes keep repeating themselves, especially love, in all its guises and disguises. But there's also the way Ophüls' films move. "His camera could pass through walls," Stanley Kubrick, a great admirer, once said about Ophüls' style. That just begins to describe what Ophüls' camera could do, though. Swirling, twirling, gliding and sliding, it's practically a member of the cast, leading audiences through the story like a dance partner who never tires, never sits one out.
Although he worked during the '30s, '40s and '50s, Ophüls kept drifting back to fin de siècle Vienna, where dukes and duchesses waltzed away the night while storm clouds gathered on the horizon. He loved chandeliers and ball gowns and grand staircases and epaulets. And if you do too, you might want to check out "Moving Pictures: The European Films of Max Ophüls," a mini-retro that begins next Friday at the UW Cinematheque and continues into December, eight films in all. Next spring, the other shoe will drop when the Cinematheque screens Ophüls' four American films, the best known of which is 1948's Letter From an Unknown Woman. But right now let's see if we can't figure out what's happened to The Earrings of Madame De...
That's the opening film of the series, arguably Ophüls' greatest, and it will be shown on Friday, Sept. 12, free of charge, starting at 7:30 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall. A pair of earrings might not seem like much to build a movie around, but in Ophüls' hands it's as multifaceted as life itself. We're in Paris during La Belle Epoque, and a beautiful countess (Danielle Darrieux) has decided to hawk the earrings her husband (Charles Boyer) gave her on their wedding day. She never really liked them very much, nor is she particularly fond of her husband. Like so many aristocratic couples, they have an arrangement whereby each is free to "dance" with other partners as long as they don't make spectacles of themselves. She, of course, is about to make a spectacle of herself.
It's Baron Donati (Vittorio de Sica), a distinguished diplomat, who rattles the countess' gilded cage. In a bravura sequence, he sweeps her off her feet on the dance floor, Ophüls threading together a whole series of nights into what seems like one continuous shot. Love wasn't supposed to be part of the deal, but the countess, to her own surprise, can't help herself. Meanwhile, nudged along by little white lies, the pair of earrings changes hands among the principles a number of times, varying in value from worthless to priceless. And the camera keeps gliding, like a horse on a carousel that's going around just a little too fast. A pas de trois on the mysteries of the human heart, The Earrings of Madame De... looks for love in all the wrong places. And finds it.
Still to come: Liebelei, La Ronde, Le Plaisir and, last but certainly not least, Lola Montez, Ophüls' sole venture into the wonderful world of color. For dates and times and descriptions of the films, go to cinema.wisc.edu.
Moving Pictures: The European Films of Max Ophüls
UW Cinematheque, through Dec. 5