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January 23 - February 12

Plaisir d'amour – The Films of Max Ophuls

Max Ophuls (1902-1957) was a supreme stylist of the cinema and a master storyteller of romance, doomed love and sexual passion. Fusing the subject of his stories with his endlessly mobile camera, he choreographed emotion, overflowing into ecstatic and extended moments that merge images of desire with desire for cinema. As his themes focus so closely on people and their extreme feelings, performance and star presence are of the essence in Ophuls’ cinema, and it is often in dance sequences that all of these elements intertwine: in Liebelei (1932), Fritz and Christine fall in love while dancing to a mechanical jukebox, surrounded by mirrors and caught in their movement by the movement of the camera; in Earrings of Madame de… (1953), Louise and Donati’s flirtation develops into amour fou across a series of sequences in which camera, mirrors, human emotions and dance fuse and fragment.

Ophuls was a truly international director, born, emblematically, in the Saar, a small state located between France and Germany. His filmmaking career began in Berlin in the early 1930s, in the aftermath of the transition to sound and just before the Nazi party came to power. After 1933, unlike many of his contemporary ethnic exiles, Ophuls attempted to remain in Europe, moving to France, where he worked – with films produced also in Italy and Holland – until forced to move to the US by the German occupation of 1941. Ophuls was the last of the exiles to arrive in Hollywood and found the environment hard. He was comparatively unknown, lacking a U.S. success as a “calling card,” and he came up against studio intransigence with his insistence on persisting with his own idiosyncratic shooting style. His elegant, elongated takes often overstepped the limits of conventional editing rhythm so that disapproving, self-righteous editors would chop his shots or break them up with cutaways (sometimes with the connivance of audience-nervous producers). But Ophuls also flourished in Hollywood, relishing the opportunities offered by highly skilled technicians, the studio sets with walls and staircases that could be moved at will, the tracks, cranes and so on, altogether the most advanced mechanisms of cinema in the world.

Ophuls returned to Europe after the war, settling in Paris, where he made the four extraordinary films that form the high point of his career. Lola Montès (1955), his only film made in color, was his last, a tour de force in which an aging courtesan acts out the memories of her notorious affairs nightly in the circus ring. Ophuls wove into the film the storytelling devices of circularity and repetition that characterize his late films as well as the flamboyant cinematic style he had mastered across a lifetime. The personal, professional and financial hopes that he invested in Lola Montès were dashed by its failure both critically and at the box-office, and may well have contributed to his untimely death in 1957. Championed at the time only by the critics of the Cahiers du cinéma, for whom Ophuls had always been a hero, Lola Montès has finally returned, after a long absence from public view, to find its place as a tragic masterpiece from a sublime director.

Introduction and Letter from an Unknown Woman note by Laura Mulvey. Special thanks to Fleur Buckley, British Film Institute; James Quandt, Cinematheque Ontario.

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Friday January 23 at 7pm

Earrings of Madame de...

Directed by Max Ophuls.
With Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio de Sica
Italy 1953, 35mm, b/w, 97 min. French with English subtitles
Print from Janus Films

Danielle Darrieux stars as a frivolous woman who is transformed by love, even as it drives her to surrender all the comforts to which she is deeply attached. The story is ingeniously organized around the circulation of a pair of earrings, a present given to the title character by her husband. This device perfectly expresses Ophuls’ vision of love and desire as a kind of exchange within a network of power relations whose circularity is revealed by the brilliant travelling shots executed by Ophuls’ moving camera, kinetic sequences that poignantly capture the obsessive dominion of romantic love.

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Friday January 23 at 9pm

Caught

Directed by Max Ophuls.
With James Mason, Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Ryan
US 1949, 35mm, b/w, 88 min.
Print courtesy of the UCLA Film and Television Archive

Ophuls’ taut noir melodrama provides a cautionary tale against love at first sight in the story of a young fashion model swept into a whirlwind romance with a capricious tycoon whose frightening megalomania only reveals itself after their marriage. Caught, perhaps more than any other of Ophuls' films, makes clear the ways that melodrama can engage the political as well as the domestic since power – like love and desire – relies on exchange. The wife's imprisonment on her husband's estate is one of the baldest examples of Ophuls' proto-feminist insistence on the extent to which heterosexual romance is based on the possession and exchange of women. Preservation funded by The Film Foundation.

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Le plaisir has been rescheduled. The film will screen on Thursday, February 12 at 7pm. Please see below for the full listing.
Saturday January 24 at 7pm

La ronde

Directed by Max Ophuls.
With Anton Walbrook, Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani
France 1950, 35mm, b/w, 97 min. French with English subtitles
Print courtesy of the British Film Institute

Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s celebrated play about the vanity and fickleness of love in nineteenth century Vienna, La ronde presents a series of vignettes between two lovers, with episodes featuring one lover from the previous segment coupled with a new character. The daisy chain structure permits Ophuls to assemble a powerhouse cast of postwar French talent: Simone Signoret, Jean-Louis Barrault, Simone Simon, Gérard Philippe, Danielle Darrieux. Ophuls expressed his admiration for Schnitzler’s fearless vision of the ferociousness of sexual desire, a stark contrast to the romantic nostalgia of the author’s later work Liebelei.

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Saturday January 24 at 9pm

Tender Enemy (La tendre ennemie)

Directed by Max Ophuls.
With Simone Berriau, Georges Vitray
France 1936, 35mm, b/w 62 min. French with English subtitles
Print courtesy of the British Film Institute

Boulevard comedy meets social satire as three dead men observe the bitter struggle of Annette – the woman they all loved and who led each to their doom – as she tries to force her daughter into an arranged marriage. Out of this slight, macabre material, Ophuls fashions a poignant meditation on time that seesaws poetically between past and present, the dead and the living. Softening the overt misogyny of the source material, Ophuls insists that Annette’s ferocity towards the men in her life stems from her own arranged marriage. Little-seen today, Tender Enemy remained one of Ophuls' personal favorites among his pre-war French films.

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Sunday January 25 at 3pm

Lola Montès

Directed by Max Ophuls.
With Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov
France/Germany 1955, 35mm, color, 115 min. German with English subtitles
Print from Rialto Pictures

His only color and widescreen film, Ophuls’ swan song to the cinema is an epic biopic about the famous nineteenth century courtesan of the title, mistress to both Franz Liszt and Leopold I of Bavaria. The film is set in a circus, with Lola herself the star attraction, appearing in a series of gaudy tableaux based on the most notorious episodes of her life, which in turn give way to stunning flashbacks. The complex narrative structure marks the culmination of Ophuls’ fascination with the role that time plays – as history, as fate, as coincidence – in human affairs. Throughout his career Ophuls was fond of using an onscreen narrator (most notably in The Comedy of Money and La ronde); here that function is filled by the cynical, sinister ringmaster played by Peter Ustinov, who is at once a Brechtian device and the avatar of spectacle-as-exploitation.

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Sunday January 25 at 7pm

Liebelei

Directed by Max Ophuls.
With Magda Schneider, Wolfgang Liebeneiner, Luise Ullrich
Germany 1932, 35mm, b/w, 85 min. German with English subtitles
Print from Biograph Pictures

The earliest of Ophuls' films to be stamped with his unmistakable signature, this tender love story between a young officer and a violinist’s daughter in turn-of-the-century Vienna establishes the director’s recurring theme of the choice between love and desire on the one hand and duty and discipline on the other. An adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s play, Liebelei’s fable of thwarted love features several important early examples of the director's magically gliding mobile camera.

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Sunday January 25 at 8:45pm

There's No Tomorrow (Sans lendemain)

Directed by Max Ophuls.
With Edwige Feuillère, Georges Rigaud, Daniel Lecourtois
France 1939, 35mm, b/w, 82 min. French with English subtitles
Print from Gaumont

A cross between Garbo and Dietrich, French star Edwige Feuillère commands the leading role as an abandoned woman reduced to dancing in a tawdry nightclub to support her young son. When a handsome beau from her past resurfaces, she borrows money in order to put on an appearance of respectability and to recapture a bit of the lost happiness of her youth. Anticipating the fusion of melodrama and noir in Ophuls' Hollywood films, There’s No Tomorrow also marks the last of Ophuls’ five films shot by Eugen Schüfftan, whose camera captures a similar melding of expressionism and poetic realism that he achieved in his work on Carné’s Quai des brumes.

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Monday January 26 at 7pm

La ronde

Directed by Max Ophuls.
With Anton Walbrook, Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani
France 1950, 35mm, b/w, 97 min. French with English subtitles
Print courtesy of the British Film Institute

Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s celebrated play about the vanity and fickleness of love in nineteenth century Vienna, La ronde presents a series of vignettes between two lovers, with episodes featuring one lover from the previous segment coupled with a new character. The daisy chain structure permits Ophuls to assemble a powerhouse cast of postwar French talent: Simone Signoret, Jean-Louis Barrault, Simone Simon, Gérard Philippe, Danielle Darrieux. Ophuls expressed his admiration for Schnitzler’s fearless vision of the ferociousness of sexual desire, a stark contrast to the romantic nostalgia of the author’s later work Liebelei.

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Monday January 26 at 9pm

Comedy of Money

Directed by Max Ophuls.
With Herman Bouber, Matthieu van Eysden, Rini Otte
Netherlands 1936, 35mm, b/w, 80 min. Dutch with English subtitles

The single feature that Ophuls directed in the Netherlands is a farce about a bank clerk who misplaces a large sum of money, setting off a chain of improbable events. The emphasis on exchange and circulation, so prevalent throughout Ophuls’ work, usually in the form of love letters or other expressions of unrequited love, lies at the heart of Comedy of Money. Featuring the exquisite cinematography of the great Eugen Schüfftan, Ophuls’ lightest film displays expressionist touches that prefigure the shadows favored by Ophuls' in his later noirish period in Hollywood.

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Introduction by Laura Mulvey
Sunday February 8 at 7pm

Letter from an Unknown Woman

Directed by Max Ophuls.
With Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan, Mady Christians
US 1948, 35mm, b/w, 90 min.
Print courtesy of the UCLA Film and Television Archive

Letter from an Unknown Woman is Ophuls' best known, most written about and admired film, very closely identified with particularly Ophulsian themes and style. Perhaps strangely, it was not initiated by him but by the independent producer William Dozier, who had long admired the Stefan Zweig novella and saw it as a perfect vehicle for his wife, Joan Fontaine. It was also perfect for Ophuls, allowing him to return to one of his preferred themes: adulterous love.  Although the woman is necessarily at the centre of these triangular relationships, Ophuls deviates slightly from the original to create an opposition between the man who “loves love” and the representative of a militaristic ancien regime. With the character of Stefan, the repetitive compulsion of the seducer fuses with the repetitive activity of the pianist and washes over the aesthetic of the film itself, with its own repeated cinematic and narrative motifs. – L.M.
Preservation funded by The Film Foundation.

 Listen to this evening's introduction.

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Sunday February 8 at 9:30pm

From Mayerling to Sarajevo

Directed by Max Ophuls.
With Edwige Feuillère, John Cabot Lodge, Gabrielle Dorziat
France 1940, 16mm, b/w, 90 min. French with English subtitles
Print courtesy of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Ophuls’ version of the courtship and marriage between Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Czech Countess Sophie Chotek depicts these events as an example of lovers uniting in the face of official disapproval. Love triumphs briefly over order and duty but is ultimately defeated by history itself. With his customary irony, Ophuls presents a nostalgic view of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where a stifling discipline reigns over exquisite elegance, all filmed with an extravagantly mobile camera and a mastery of mise-en-scène that looks forward to his postwar films. The poignancy of this nostalgia would hardly have escaped the film’s original audiences, given its release in the early days of World War II.

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Monday February 9 at 7pm

The Reckless Moment

Directed by Max Ophuls.
With James Mason, Joan Bennett, Geraldine Brooks
US 1949, 35mm, b/w, 82 min.
Print from Sony Pictures

Continuing the shift from melodrama to noir begun with Caught, The Reckless Moment follows the desperate actions of a mother, played with terrific urgency by a superlative Joan Bennett, whose attempts to conceal the murder she believes her daughter has committed only draws the attention of a ruthless yet strangely sympathetic blackmailer. The mutual attraction that develops between the mother and the petty criminal provided James Mason with one of his best roles, and lays bare the emptiness of an American housewife’s existence. Featuring the dramatic light and shadow magic of master cinematographer Burnett Guffey, The Reckless Moment unleashes a spirited, roving camera to track the constant motion of Bennett’s daily routines as relentlessly as it follows Lola Montès or Lisa in Letter from an Unknown Woman.

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Monday February 9 at 8:45pm

The Exile

Directed by Max Ophuls.
With Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Maria Montez, Paule Croset
US 1947, 35mm, b/w, 95 min.
Print from Universal Pictures

Ophuls’ arrival in Hollywood in 1941 ended his years of hopscotching across Europe in flight from the Nazis. After several years of false starts, Ophuls was finally given a chance to direct by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who hired him for The Exile, a film that the actor was producing as his own star vehicle. Ophuls’ admiration for Fairbanks' charisma shows in this film, which is as charming as its leading man. A rich costume drama, The Exile’s title character lands into a very Ophulsian dilemma—forced to choose between love and duty—and exiled in Holland, much like Ophuls himself, just a few years earlier.

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This is the rescheduled screening of Le plaisir, originally planned for January 24.
Thursday February 12 at 7pm

Le plaisir

Directed by Max Ophuls.
With Claude Dauphin, Simone Simon, Jean Gabin
France 1952, 35mm, b/w, 95 min. French and English with English subtitles

Ophuls’ penultimate film is actually a remarkable triptych: three separate segments, all drawn from de Maupassant and all demonstrating that the “pleasure” of the title is not at all the same thing as “happiness.” Bookended between two devastating vignettesis Le plaisir’s central and longest section, which movingly tells the simple story of the star-crossed meeting between a farmer and a prostitute. In contrast are the film’s opening segment, in which vigorous and joyous movement – captured by the ceaseless movement of Ophuls’ camera – metamorphoses into a dance of death, and the film’s conclusion, which reveals the fatality of pleasure when it gives way to boredom.

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Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700