Is there any film-maker more musical than Max Ophuls? It’s hard to think of one. Even the lone film-maker rollicking with his plastic light and shadow in the backyard can’t keep up with Ophuls’ allegro starts, soft stops, camera zips, framing ruptures and counterpoint galore. Ophuls is one of the few film-makers where the images actual keep pace with the music rather than riff on them. Ophuls had to work with more in front of him as well: actors, lights, yapping assistants, how did he string it all together? When confronted with the sheer variations of tempo in La Signora di Tutti, Letter From and Unknown Woman and The Earrings of Madame de… Todd Haynes comment rings truth, ‘There’s something almost vulgar about trying to describe what Ophuls’ camera does. (1) ‘Better to just watch and enjoy’ you say to yourself. Get sucked in.
Through the availability of online exchange (2&3) most of Ophuls 1930’s work is now available, often with multi-language subtitles. Through these exchanges one comes across a unique work even in Ophuls’ canon, Sans Lendemain (1939). Ophuls’ camera is magic yes, Sans Lendemain has extended tracks, hypnotic zooms, volleying pans but it’s marked distinctly by the use of the close up. In these close ups are surprisingly disruptive dead spaces, often using the heroine’s eyes gazing onto the horizon, the fog. Decidedly un-glamorous these close ups can act as markers for the story, the music, since what comes after it feels like a restart. There is no motion in these close ups. Just emanation. As Tag Gallagher says in his essay (4) ‘Evelyne’s passion crystallizes’, the story sits on her dead gaze.
There are so many actions and effects in Ophuls’ staging finding a constant musical equivalent for a whole film would be impossible. Yet some films (5) reveal anchors, brackets, and idea or two to let the story simmer. Here, Evelyne is played by stage star Edwige Feuillere and her portraiture, from medium shot to these dead space close ups, brackets the film. Is it possible to show the musical flow in Ophuls films by writing? I’ll take a rookie’s crack at it by offering this descriptive tablature below. You’ll find each section begins and ends with each of Evelyne’s dead gazes and corresponding text. Find the film and watch it. If you enjoy it, follow along a second time, argue the details I left out or smushed with poetics. An experiment, in honor of a supreme experimental film-maker.
Introduction – What will that get you? Why happiness!
We enter night club Le Siren but not before we the see the attraction right out front. Nude, the poses struck allow for everyone to see –still, they are protected. They’re called ‘The Four Seasons’ and each lady gets her own individual shot, flashing like cards in a deck, before the camera enters the club zooming in and dissolving from a group photo. They finish their song & dance and a similar flashing happens back stage. 8 stationary shots of dancers changing, too much talking, too much action to catch all at once, (6) superimposed nets as curtains…the first signifying action of Evelyne is a focused shot of her squinting a pill down, numbing her for the evenings festivities.
She is with an old customer, hilariously idolizing her. In this lax she gives herself away ‘It’s even scary to think I might be someone’. By the time she’s home she aches all over. We’ll soon learn the difference between fatigue and the crystallized looks that follow. News of her young son expelled from school. She adores him, energies reverse, the playful performance of mother and son.
Evelyne goes to work. George follows his friend Armand through a skirmish and sees ‘Pams’. Following the characters back and forth we feel the first musical counterpoint. They have only loved each other. They reminisce in flashback. ‘What will that get you? Why happiness!’ Evelyne’s eyes finally give way to the emanating gaze. It’s just the beginning, we aren’t allowed to see her in close up yet.
What will that get you? Why happiness! – Yes I loved him. Only him.
Reality falls. Evelyne must go. Two men comment secretly about ‘knowing’ her. Another note to the melody; fear George will see Evelyne and not Pams. Evelyne’s eyes pop out of the darkness leading George to a fake home, successfully escaping one reality. Darkness surrounds her but it is a blank space to create a new world.
So it’s time to get going. Back at Le Siren Evelyne dissects the club looking for Henri. She’s playing the part of the director now, trusting Henri wont give her too much shit for it. She almost slips into her gaze twice trying to explain the importance of the illusion being created: He’d be so unhappy if he knew what I’ve become. If it doesn’t work, she’ll kill herself.
Yes I loved him. Only him. – I think my profession shows on my face.
George dreams to Armand about Pams. While Evelyne dances naked for the first time, in her gaze; rupturing her to begin again, create something old and new.
I think my profession shows on my face. – The only thing that looks
real is the bargirl Evelyne,
who no longer looks real.
Evelyne and Henri tour the residence she picked out in haste/by chance that night with George. It’s costs way too much money but they play the part well. Another musical counterpoint as George sends flowers. Even without him present Evelyne senses she’s closer to him. She ventures to an old place, Paul the pimp, with a new spirit. ‘You have an air of respectability on your face.’ She presents Paul and old story, conning a john, to fuel the illusion but soon realizes that neither can be temporary. She insists to her son Pierrot the cursed word throughout the film ‘tomorrow’ (DE main) to retrieve his birds from the old apartment. Her fate is sealed. But it’s worth it. Preparing the new home Evelyne asks Henri, ‘Does it look real?’ Henri, ‘The only thing that looks real is the bargirl Evelyne, who no longer looks real.’
The only thing that looks — No George, life doesn’t begin again.
real is the bargirl Evelyne,
who no longer looks real.
Continued preparation. Two trains of music begin. The smooth tracking of Georges and Armand walking to Pams’ new home and the bouncing cuts inside the new home of Evelyne and crew. Playing with the train set shows the reverse effect; Pierrot already plays with the train set smoothly. His begins in the dark, dreaming of his own new world. Armand’s fits and starts electrically short the whole house. Evelyne almost slips away twice, once when pimp Paul calls and again when she asks George whether he married. She keeps just enough movement in her eyes to stay afloat.
Another flashback, this time George gets a viewpoint but appropriately we see him walking around aimlessly, an empty set, more questions. Pams gets the full-bodied profile in darkness. ‘Do you believe me’, the lights pop on from Armand’s short confirming, yes. Still, their fate is sealed, casting a farewell to tomorrow. Pierrot and Armand join forces, pulling the lynchpin out of the fantasy as Evelyne and George run off to another fantasy. Evelyne is as close to a full realization of her world as she’ll ever get. Even as she snaps into her gaze, she wiggles her head just enough, hoping it isn’t true. ‘No George, life doesn’t begin again.’
No George, life doesn’t begin again. – To a land where people are very
Evelyne now begins another plan. In an errie refain, as she listens to George, ‘Nothing more can happen to us now.’, she lays in her gaze, her hand detached from her body in the frame. Maybe she can accept her own fate and convince George to jump ship? He demands Pierrot, it’s all or nothing again. Through a flashback retelling, where we see Evelyne’s dead husband’s stare rivaling her dead eyes, Evelyne convinces Armand to unite their plans. A long aching track with Evelyne. (7) All that’s left is Pimp Paul to seal her fate. In his confrontation, she stands in mock of her gaze, the ‘fuck-you look’ Paul calls it. She holds her stance through caressing Pierrot, telling him where he will go with George.
To a land where people are very -- It must be good to sink into the fog.
Evelyne’s gaze dominates the rest of the movie. A few ruptures at the train station losing George and Pierrot. We see Pierrot challenge the size of the train, already dreaming big. ‘He’ll climb up to the mast (of your boat)’ Evelyne says. Now gone, she has nothing left: sink into the fog, without feeling, without anything.
(1) Spoken during his introduction on the Le Plasir DVD. (Criterion & Second
(2) Special thanks to Tag Gallagher for his English subtitling on many of these.
(3) Offical channels: Masters of Cinema and Ripley’s Home Video releasing La Signora di Tutti.
(4) Max Ophuls: A New Art – But Who Notices?
(5) Two examples: The superimposed spirits in La Tendre Enemie (1936)
and the right to left and back volleying pans mainly following
busied Joan Bennett in The Reckless Moment (1949).
(6) Similar to the establishing shots of the mad dance ball beginning the first
story in Le Plasir.
(7) A similar tracking shot follows Gaby during her mania inside her mansion in La signora di tutti.