Everybody knows that Max Ophuls’ films are love stories. But there are many kinds of love. In this essay I’d like to trace the appearance and development of a concern in Ophuls’ work with a kind of love distinguishable from its more familiar cinematic forms (romantic yearning and erotic desire) that consists, quite simply, in one person caring for another. It is expressed in a concerned and considerate solicitude for the well-being of the lover that takes an active and so ethical form. More compassionate than passionate, it is always other-directed, motivated by an urge to comfort, not personal pleasure. It is therefore dialectically interesting to note that the Ophuls film most concerned with a care-full kind of love is devoted to and entitled Le Plaisir (1952).
The film that first called this preoccupation to my attention was Ophuls’ 1949 Hollywood film Caught. Leonora, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, eventually turns her back on the world of money and materialism represented by her tycoon husband, Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) and partners with the good Doctor Quinada, beautifully played by James Mason. The physician had been impatient with, and dismissive of, Leonora’s grand airs and flightiness; but he changes his mind and his feelings about her when she joins him in an all-night no-sleep tenement vigil looking after a seriously ill patient, a young girl with botulism. Dr. Quinada’s job is to take care of people, though for him it’s not just a profession, it’s a vocation. He’s set up his practice on the lower east side of Manhattan because there he can learn more about medicine, and treat more people who really need his help, than he could in a better part of town. When he sees a similar concern for others in Leonora, a selfless urge to make someone else feel better, he falls for her. His first impulse, as they’re leaving the sick girl’s apartment in the chilly pre-dawn hours, is to try to take care of Leonora now. He sees that she’s cold in her thin cheap raincoat and offers her money (“I don’t need an overcoat, I’ve got one” he says) to buy a warm coat. She refuses, and the next day he buys it for her—plain, practical, durable, and a far cry from the fancy mink coat she left behind when she left Ohlrig. The subsequent couple-dance, an Ophuls signature, is delightfully democratic as the moving camera follows the jostled lovers making their way across the crowded dance floor. It only confirms but does not capture the first spark of love between them. That takes place when the doctor realizes his assistant is capable of caring for another person, someone in need, without a thought for her own comfort.
This concern with a love based on one person simply caring for another is not altogether new in Ophuls’ work. Already in Liebelei (1933) Christine’s feelings for Fritz are expressed on their first night together through her tending to his headache and mending the cap that caused it, neither of them quite aware that it was her dropping the binoculars at the opera that bent that cap in the first place. And in La Signora di Tutti (1934) Gaby is arguably more content taking care of the invalid wife and mother of her two lovers than she ever is with a man.
People care for each other in fairly obvious ways, sometimes to excess, in Ophuls’ last Hollywood film The Reckless Moment (1959), about which I have little to say in this context. The melodrama might almost be called People Who Care Too Much (and the People Who Care for Them). The housewife-mother (Joan Bennett) will do anything for her ungrateful daughter (Geraldine Brooks), even dispose of the body; the blackmailer (James Mason) falls in love with her but they have no future; and the woman finally falls for him, too late. I’d simply point out that the turn-around in their relationship, as the blackmailer goes from exploiter to helpmate, occurs when he buys for her some filters for the cigarettes she’s always smoking because he’s concerned about her health. All he can do is try to protect her from the toxic elements that his dirty criminal life has introduced into her hygienic, antiseptic, and insipid suburban existence.
The background of compulsive carnal couplings in La Ronde (1950) makes clear Ophuls’ interest in a relationship based on actually caring for your partner, which is foregrounded in the interactions between the married couple at the center of the film. Of course, their sexless exchange is the great irony of the film and the play it’s based on: in hyper-sexualized fin-de-siecle Vienna, the only pair of people not having sex (at least with each other) are the stodgy husband and his duly consecrated wife. In their scene together they lie side-by-side in separate beds separated by an arm’s length of distance that comes to seem a huge chasm as they talk at length about their marital relations. She (Danielle Darrieux), stimulated by the rendezvous with her only temporarily impotent young lover, tries for perhaps the first time to initiate matters with her husband. He (a very droll Fernand Gravey) is unresponsive, probably thinking about and saving himself for the girl he plans to seduce (in the next vignette). He speaks of the ebb and flow (currently more the former than the latter) of passion in marriage and lectures her about unfaithful wives. The husband’s role throughout is mostly played for laughs, and usually at his expense, sometimes literally—the master of ceremonies (Anton Walbrook) keeps giving him “l’addition” for his mistress’ expenditures. During the bedtime colloquy with his wife, he is consistently pompous and patronizing. But then a remarkable thing happens. That arm’s length gap between their beds is bridged, not by amorous bodies but by their arms. He asks for her hand, again, takes it in his, strokes it with his other hand, and she places her other hand on that. This is no metonymy or symbol or Hollywood-Production-Code-like stand-in for this couple’s copulation; this is the moment that completes the circuit of connection for this pair in La Ronde’s ongoing partner-swap (and, by the way, the one that short-circuits the idea that the plot follows the transmission of a venereal infection). All the other, presumably more lascivious, couplings take place discreetly off-camera but here Ophuls’ camera lingers, I would say lovingly, on this delicate and literally touching moment of intimacy. The tender touch of matrimonially linked hands might seem rather anemic and, again, ironic in contrast to the full-blooded extra-marital grappling that happens off-screen. There is considerable condescension on his part, and considerable regret on hers, but it is still a moment of kind and mutual regard. That gentle caress stands out in quiet relief against the instrumentality of the other couplings in the film, which are for the most part exploitive, callous, even brutal when they’re not (as with the married couple’s other partners) simply inept. The husband and wife care for each other in ways that are nowhere in evidence in the more concupiscent “lovers” so vigorously straddling their mounts on La Ronde’s relentless erotic merry-go-round.
The striking shift in tone at the end of this scene, from a perhaps too sophisticated ironic ridicule of marital relations to a deeply felt appreciation of the ways this man and wife do actually care for each other is signaled in the extraordinary shot that closes their episode. The entire sequence has been filmed in two-shots, mid-shots, and close-ups of them from an angle originating at the foot or to the side of the beds, sometimes shooting through the moving mechanism of a clock (there’s the figure of an archer on top, is it Cupid?) which is on a table opposite them. “Give me your hand” he says to her, reaching out his, shot through the timepiece. The moment of contact when she takes his hand and then all four hands come together is suddenly and for the first time shot from behind the headboards. This set-up doesn’t just break the 180-degree rule, it is logically, spatially, and physically impossible. We have seen what’s behind those headboards, a wall with mounted lamps above their heads. The camera shoots from some four feet behind that wall, pulling back and up another four feet to hold on the shot of the interlocked hands, the clock in the distance. It is, as I’ve said, a sweet, tender, respectful, no longer ironic image of marital love. The prominence of the clock in the shot is probably not meant to underscore the fatuous romance-formula remark he made earlier—when she asks what time it is, he says with “poetic” self-satisfaction, “What does it matter? We have the rest of our lives.” His saccharine sentiment is undercut by her very ironic response, “how reassuring.” When the turn-around in tone happens at the end, signaled by that turned-around shot from an impossible vantage-point, the sense of temporality invoked by the glowing clock-face is saying something else about the accumulated layers of interpersonal experience suggested by their interlaced hands. It is evident in this 110-minute film showing nine hook-ups that seduction and sexual consummation can happen remarkably fast; caring for someone takes time.
The care complex in Ophuls’ cinema finds its most fully realized, if not fully recognized, form in the three tales of Le Plaisir, most obviously so in “The Model.” The painter (Daniel Gélin) taunts his desperate lover and model (Simone Simon) to go right ahead when she threatens to kill herself, only realizing too late how he cares for her—“No! No!!” he screams as she plunges out the window and crashes through panes of skylight glass. Both of her legs are broken in the fall and she is confined to a wheel-chair; he spends the rest of their lives together taking care of her. I think we need to read against the interpretation the narrator offers when we try to assess the crippled life they share after the suicide attempt, especially when, as here, the narrator as disembodied voice-over (in the first two parts of Le Plaisir) somewhat intrusively takes on the avatar of a character in the story, a Parisian columnist (Jean Servais) who influences, not just relates, the events. The narrator never liked the model and urged the painter to abandon her; he concludes this “tragic” story of what he calls “moral death” (i.e. marriage to a crippled girl) by saying of the devoted caretaker, “Since his life was over all he could do was work.” The painter became a great success, found “love, glory, and fortune” but, according to the narrator, it was joyless. It was also friendless—at least this friend, the narrator, who the painter cut out of his life for trying to turn him against his mistress. The narrator’s version of events may very well be colored by pique and resentment and his understanding limited by his evident bias. He has a low opinion of women in general and models in particular, especially this one. But the real storyteller of “The Model,” not the newly incarnated narrator who voices his prejudices in the voice-over but the one who remains invisible throughout, calling the shots behind the camera, likely has a different opinion. Ophuls clearly has a high regard for a woman who becomes a martyr for love: Christine in Leibelei, who also jumps out a window; Lisa who, dying of cholera, writes and sends (thereby infecting her reader?) the Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948); and Madame De— (1952), whose broken heart stops when no second shot in the duel is heard. For the writer-director of these films, the lover who would die for love is a model woman. The embodied narrator may be as obtuse about his ex-friend as he is about the model. He is unable or unwilling to acknowledge the possibility that, for the painter, his fathomless love opened up inside and outside him in his mistress’ vertiginous and life-shattering plunge out the window. Perhaps the painter marries her and devotes the rest of his life to taking care of her not just out of guilt but because he finally and definitively knows how much he (in every sense) cares for and adores her.
To appreciate the thematics of care in “The Mask” it is likewise necessary to shift one’s attention from the story to its teller. I don’t mean the suitably detached voice-over narrator but the storyteller who eventually explains the strange mystery of an old man (Jean Gallin) in the mask of a young bon vivant. The elderly man’s wife (Gaby Morlay) tells the doctor (Claude Dauphin) the story of this youth-obsessed old roué who masquerades as a party boy and she at first seems important only as the source of information which explains the grotesquerie of the aged face beneath the youthful rubber mask. The old man’s dual nature is like Dorian Gray’s, though in Wilde’s tale the beautiful young exterior is contrasted with the portrait’s image of a decrepit and dissolute inner being as imaged in the face-to-face mirror of art. Here the cosmetic and prosthetic visage of youth (the old man worked as a hairdresser) provides a second skin for the aging flesh that seems withered and wasted by both time and dissipation. Throughout the scene, as she relates her husband’s vain history, the wife more than the doctor tends to the enfeebled old deceiver. She undresses him, prepares a hot water bottle, makes him a compress, comes running when he calls “Denise! I‘m all alone!” She treats him tenderly and patiently, despite her long-lasting irritation with this fixation on looking and acting like the frisky young man he ceased to be decades ago. The irony, of course, is what both the old man and, no doubt, many viewers remain oblivious to: he takes completely for granted the one woman in the world who, when she looks at his wrinkled and faded countenance with the love she continues to feel for him, still sees the young man he used to be, and always will be, for her. Not content to be simply in her eyes the attractive young man she married, he dons a black-haired wig atop a smooth and painted rubber face, goes to balls, and rubs up against young women, dancing with strangers in a near-fatal frenzy.
It is easy to miss the poignancy of this point. I only realized it myself, retroactively, when the voice of the narrator later describes the first tale as one of “pleasure and love.” Where’s the love?, I asked myself. Under my nose, I realized, as I, like many viewers, overlooked the way the wife so devotedly cares for her husband, looking through her to discover the bizarre and pathetic impulses behind the mask.
In “ La Maison Tellier,“ the camerawork is crucial to understanding the ways caring for another person is an important element in the story. The minimal plot—a group of prostitutes go to the country and their absence brings the homosocial economy of their brothel’s town grinding to a halt—is the occasion for the most transcendent use of the camera (and that’s saying a lot) in all of Ophuls’ work. I’m referring of course to the celebrated sequence in the church where the Madame’s niece takes her first communion. The camera moves from several choirs singing “Nearer My God to Thee” to the group of communicants, then ascends into the upper reaches of the church, following a line of suspended angels pointing upward that seem stretched along a beam of light coming through a high round window; the next shot is of the church’s steeple drenched in sunlight; then the same shot of the light through that window with the camera descending from on high along another line of angels, pointing downward, as it follows the shaft of light; the camera crosses from the last angel, following the trajectory of its pointing finger, coming to rest on the profiled face of Rosa (Danielle Darrieux), one of the Madame’s girls; and Rosa starts to cry. The camera is telling us that Rosa is, simply and literally, touched by God’s radiance.[i] Rosa’s tears then become infectious; soon her co-workers also start to cry, and eventually the entire congregation is sobbing with tears—even the priest, not a young man, who mounts the pulpit and says to the lachrymose gathering, “You’ve given me the greatest joy of my life.” This is indeed a day of communion.
This well of tears may be triggered by divine penetration (the angels look like cherubs which look like cupids; the shaft of light the camera lens follows would then be the arrow of God’s love piercing Rosa’s heart). And the emotions those tears express are deeply felt. But this is not itself an instance of someone caring for another person in the way I’ve been discussing. That happens the night before the church service when Rosa, who is restless and doesn’t like sleeping alone, doesn’t go to bed with Madame Tellier’s brother Joseph (a spry Jean Gabin), as her co-workers expect her to do. Instead, when she hears someone crying, she goes to Joseph’s daughter Constance (Jocelyne Jany), who is afraid without her mother. She invites the young girl to her bed and discovers what else two people might do there. She comforts and consoles the child, allowing them both to sleep peacefully.
Up to this point Rosa has been depicted as rather simple-minded, flighty, and pleasure-loving. The narrator tells us “Rosa only stopped drinking to sing and singing to drink,” and getting out into the country and away from the wine cellar doesn’t make her less ditzy. On the train she concocts absurdly grandiose stories about the lavish presents her supposed husband gives her: “He sends me dresses and jewelry every day. Even flowers.” Yet she unexpectedly becomes the agent of religious transport in the church. The narrator announces that this tale is about pleasure and purity, and that seems to mean Rosa, whose pure heart breaks open a vessel of tears. What makes her susceptible to and capable of that kind of transcendent experience, I would suggest, is the simple fact that the night before, probably for the first time, she took a stranger to her bed not for money or pleasure or out of habit but to comfort and care for someone.
More than the tears are contagious in the crying jag initiated by Rosa. Joseph, who is clearly attracted to her, changes places in the pew with one of the girls so he can be next to Rosa. And he does so simply to comfort her: “No need to cry, Madame Rosa” he says, blinking back his own tears. This is the moment when his desire for her becomes something more. His effusive attentions begin, as he barges into her room to “thank” her and is shooed out by his sister (not his wife, who is a curiously negligible presence); he tries to arrange the carriage seats so Rosa sits next to him (nixed by his sister); and he says “au revoir” to her three times at the train station, then chases the departing train for one last farewell wave and call to her. In the de Maupassant story on which this tale is based, Joseph’s intrusion into Rosa’s room is an attempted rape. Altering his actions and intentions, from sexual aggression to impetuous intoxication, allows the film to suggest, again, that a love discovered and expressed through a concerned solicitude has deeper roots than mere sexual desire.
The changes sparked by Rosa’s tears—a kind of universal solvent—continue when the band of girls return to their house of not-so-ill repute. The signifying camera-work in this part of the tale is more subtle than the “Nearer My God to Thee” scene in the church. Once again the camera signals a character’s transformation when she learns to feel and express a new and unexpected concern for another person. The operating visual conceit of the film’s representation of the brothel is always to shoot it from the outside looking in. We see and hear (some of) what happens inside only through windows, always with shutters and blinds and curtains blocking part of the view. The glass transom is latticed; even the small peephole in the door has a grate partially occluding our view into the house of pleasure. This motif, established in the opening scenes, continues when the brothel re-opens after its occupants return from their pastoral holiday. Word of the re-opening spreads quickly through the male community. Monsieur Tourneveau (Louis Seigner), alerted, breaks away from his home life and heads there in a hurry, even though it’s not his usual Saturday night (missed due to the closure). He arrives and asks breathlessly for Madame Tellier. As it’s done before when tracking other characters, the camera follows him in the door, up the stairs, across the hall, and to the door of Madame Tellier’s study, his progress glimpsed through the usual grates, lattices, blinds, shutters, and curtains. Madame Tellier’s study is a no-man’s-land (but for the glowering portrait of her deceased husband); we had a partial view of the room, window half-shuttered, in the introduction. Now, though, as she says “Come in” to Tourneveau’s knock, the camera outside the completely open window moves in to re-frame in an unprecedented shot. For the first and only time we have a completely unobstructed view of an interior. The film frame matches exactly the window frame (so completely that, on an early viewing, I thought Ophuls had abandoned in this one shot the practice of shooting from outside the house). “Come in” she says to Tourneveau, letting him enter her domain. And so do we.
Delighted by Tourneveau’s delight at their return, Madame Tellier becomes lavishly generous, dancing with her guest, calling for flowers, even offering a discount on the steeply marked-up champagne. When Tourneveau says “If only you were so generous with your feelings” she stuns him by replying “Why Not? Today I want everyone to be happy.” For apparently the first time, Madame Tellier herself will mix business with pleasure. She lets him in. I don’t just mean that in the vulgar sexual sense. She has heretofore been a no-nonsense businesswoman; her business is pleasure and she runs a tight ship. But she too is changed by thier pastoral interlude while her business was (as the sign on the door says) “Closed for First Communion.” She opens up in new ways, enjoys the company of her clients, isn’t just concerned about the professional aspects of the oldest profession. If at the beginning of the film Madame Tellier in her brisk and efficient regard for her girls and clients is some version of the whore with a heart of gold, it is only because there is a cash-box in her chest. At the end of the film, when Tourneveau comes knocking, she seems unexpectedly to have acquired a heart. And she lets him in.
That unobstructed view into her interior doesn’t last long. When she and Tourneveau leave her study and the revels begin, the film resumes its partially blinded view of the establishment, though her generosity and joie de vivre continue. The last shot of the exterior tells us that Madame Tellier does indeed now have a heart: a garland of flowers is hung over the entrance in that shape.
This concern in Ophuls’ work with a caring kind of love distinguishable from erotic desire and romantic longing, which I’ve traced in four films made over three years, found its most complete, if highly nuanced, expression in Le Plaisir. Perhaps the writer-director did not have much more to say on the subject. In any case, that concern does not figure very prominently in his last two films, Madame de— and Lola Montes (1955), both of which are, though in very different senses, movies about a careless woman. The exploration of that theme in earlier films will I hope give some point and possible profundity to the sadly dismissive phrase that comes up too readily in relation to Ophuls’ cinema today. Who cares?
[i] This is not a top-down proposition, however. A lovely thing about this sequence is the way it starts in the terrestrial realm, the group of boys and girls assembled for their first communion, and moves from there to suggestions of the divine before returning to the temporal world. Is the source of Rosa’s transformation unequivocally God or the spirit of those communicants, relayed through some higher power like a reflecting mirror?