This weekend, the Music Box wrapped up its series “Weepie Noir: The Dark Side of Women’s Pictures” with a 16-millimeter screening of Letter from an Unknown Woman, the great melodrama by master filmmaker Max Ophuls, whose unfortunately brief career yielded one of cinema’s richest and most resonant filmographies. He is, of course, known for his baroque style and brilliant long takes, but as Francois Truffaut explained in his obituary of the director, “He was not the virtuoso or the aesthete or the decorative filmmaker he has been called. . . . Like his friend Jean Renoir, Ophuls always sacrificed technique to the actor.” That’s true—however, at the risk of sounding presumptuous, I think characters, particularly female protagonists, interested Ophuls far more than actors. He calibrated every filmmaking decision to the minds, desires, and lives of the people in his films, so much that his camera became an extension of their being, visualizing a hidden quality that literary critics describe as “interiority.” I also don’t think Ophuls “sacrifices” anything—his style is built into his artistic mission. He once said, “The camera exists to create a new art and to show above all what cannot be seen elsewhere, neither in theater nor in life,” a notion exemplified in his best films. You can see my five favorite Ophuls films below.
5. Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) Maybe the director’s most delirious film, a bittersweet and exemplary melodrama about both the allure and the danger of fantasy. Structured like an opera, the episodic story illustrates a doomed and delusional love affair with equal parts grace, humor, distemper, and cynicism.
4. Liebelei (1933) A lot of Ophuls’s early films are difficult to come by; this is the only one made before 1946 that I’ve seen. But it strikes me as a major work, a simple yet deceptively complex adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s play. Sort of like a Frank Borzage film, this configures romantic love as a human ideal, a notion the director followed to its logical end as his films grew more cynical (1947-1949) and then more baroque (1952-1958). The climactic close-up is stunning.
3. La ronde (1950) A transitional film (Don Druker is dead-on when he writes, “The movement toward Ophuls’s baroque masterpiece Lola Montes is unmistakable.” The film is both completely joyous and stylistically radical, nearly avant-garde in the way it plays with the boundary between life and theater, facilitated by Anton Walbrook as the Raconteur, maybe the best performance in an Ophuls film. The director’s camera is particularly expressive here, comparing and illuminating the dialogue and the images via his famous tracking shots.
2. The Reckless Moment (1949) This film, the final one Ophuls made in the United States, is overshadowed by the more famous stuff he made upon returning to Europe, as Dave Kehr notes. But as the title implicates, it’s superb melodrama, ballsy and lurid in ways generally unassociated with the director. Ophuls is an underrated genre alchemist—here, he infuses the narrative and visual design with elements of noir and the thriller, underlining the already cerebral material with deep psychological intrigue.
1. The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953) Ophuls’s mastery of the long take has been discussed to death—so much that it becomes a sort of begrudged talking point for many of his devotees—but one look as this masterpiece is enough to remind us why he received such praise in the first place. The way the director expands space and time with his camera isn’t merely a technical and stylistic achievement, it’s something of a philosophical manifesto. Writing about La Ronde, the critic Kent Jones summed it up best: “Ophuls created moments that gave form to something that was far beyond the reach of most filmmakers—the apparent permanence of feelings versus the transience of existence.”