La Ronde (1950)

LarondeposterIf you know anything about director Max Ophuls you might realize his preoccupation with the cycling of time and storyline, even in visual terms. He initiates La Ronde with a lengthy opening shot that, of course, involves stairs (one of his trademarks), and the introduction of our narrative by a man who sees the world “in the round.” He brings our story to its proceedings, introducing us to the Vienna of 1900. It’s the age of the waltz and love is in the air — making its rounds. It’s meta in nature and a bit pretentious but do we mind this jaunt? Hardly.

It’s many vignettes of love and romance take us through drawing rooms and bedrooms, past bacchanalian gardens and statues involving a menagerie of figures from prostitutes and soldiers to poets and actresses. By the standards of the 1950s, it’s a highly overt and provocative film — even cheeky. And despite being set in Austria, it undoubtedly brings to mind the Rococo work of the likes of Fragonard or even Watteau’s “Embarkation for Cythera.”

Ophuls seems fascinated with the metaphor of carousels because, in a way, everything turns. Life is constantly of a cyclical nature just as film and the stories it tells always fluctuate from high to low and so on.

When I began my fledgling investigation of world cinema Simone Signoret and Simone Simon were two names that I egregiously intertwined. Now, forced to confront my confusion, I can say definitely that there is a clear distinction in my mind. They stand alone and really this is a film with some of France’s greatest female icons with Danielle Darreiux being another name of note.

However, this is hardly a story about a certain character, but more the themes running through the story and it gives Ophuls the means to exert his artistic mores. His shot lengths indicate just how assured he was in his work — commanding every detail.

When you think he’s going to fall back on a cut and move on, he finds yet another way to keep the shot going. It really is remarkable and it becomes noticeable just how continuous this film is at times. He’s also very much in his element with figures pirouetting on the dance floor. It’s only matched by the elegantly whimsical refrains of the score.

La Ronde actually brought to mind the biblical allusion from Ecclesiastes sung about so iconically by the Byrds. There is a season turn, turn, turn. Except in Ophuls’ case, he seems only interested in the idea of this carousel of romantic encounters. He never actually looks at the inverse of these fluffy tete-a-tetes — what happens when people are alone or their hearts are broken.

It’s very convenient actually, and it allows the film to maintain it’s light, airy quality. For instance, it never looks at the underlining issues that become apparent in a film like A Brief Encounter (1945). Still, I suppose its exquisite elegance and manners are meant to cover up the more base qualities of mankind. In the end, everything goes round and round. Whether or not there is a purpose to it all is for the viewer to decide.

4/5 Stars

The Earrings of Madame De… (1953)

MadamedeposterThe Earrings of Madame De…, in essence, feels like the perfect incarnation of an Ophuls’ film. In fact, sometimes I forget that Ophuls is actually German because his films are full of French sentiment. I mean that not because of their cast, although we do have Charles Boyer and Danielle Darieux, but more so due to the fact that his films are about elegant, melodramatic romances that fit the decadence of Parisian high society. For instance, in Madame De… Danielle Darrieux is positively swimming in luxury, whether it means dresses, furnishings, or especially jewelry. Materially her husband Andre (Boyer), a French general, has lavished all the worldly possessions upon her. Except that’s not what she wants. At least that’s not what will make her happy. She may be obsessed with the material, but even the material which she so desires is ultimately poisoned over time. Over time Andre cannot even win her over with trinkets and gifts. She cares little for the eponymous earrings until they come from her true love Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica).

These are the same earrings that she sold to pay off a debt. The same earrings that Andre reacquired from the jeweler and then made the rounds once more. Ophuls said himself that he was drawn to this narrative because “there is always the same axis around which the action continually turns like a carousel. A tiny, scarcely visible axis: a pair of earrings.” And really it is a fascinating plot device that ties the entire narrative together, while also seeming to reflect the utter frivolity and triviality of it all. How can these earrings hold so much weight to one person? And yet that’s only the face value, because, to begin with, they are only an object to be coveted and maybe cherished. Over time they become a token, a symbol of true love and Louise gives them away to the parish because she no longer needs them. She has some notion now of what true love actually feels like.

For the majority of the film, Andre is forever civil with her. He knows that she does not really love him, and he even has time for a mistress on the side. He handles her opportune fainting spells and little charades with grace and at times amusement. But when he gets a hint at Donati’s relationship with his wife, he does what any honorable gentlemen would do. He’s indignant of his rival and builds a huge feud out of nothing. What follows is a duel and the rest is history.

Madame De… probably does not get as much acknowledgment as it should, because Ophuls was a champion of so-called “Women Pictures,” which actually take on the point of view of women, in an industry that’s so male-dominant even to this day. Thus, Madame De… is a little different in perspective, and it tries to hide all of its tragedy behind superficiality. It makes for an interesting lesson in romance and the female psyche. Yet again the director shows his immense affinity for staircases turning them into the personal playground for his camera. He loves to twirl, pirouette, and glide just as much as Louise and Donati do as they dance the night away at the ball. De Sica is a champion director in his own right, but it was especially fun to see him in front of the camera and he seemed an apt player opposite his costars. The worthy equal of Boyer and a suave love interest on top of that. There’s nothing more romantic than Danielle Darreux dreamily repeating to him, “I don’t love you, I don’t love you, I don’t love you.” The sad irony is that those words ring true with her actual husband as reflected by a pair of earrings.

4.5/5 Stars

Me & Earl and the Dying Girl: Depth and Dying (2015)

meandearl1What struck me about Me & Earl this time around was not just the cinematic homage or the quirky indieness, but the fluid movement of the camera matched with the ever-evolving score of Brian Eno. It made me appreciate this film yet again because some people might say it’s weighed down by over-trod tropes, but it leaves those in the dust. Others might criticize it for playing up to all the cinephiles out there in order to garner respect. Which might be true.

But in essence, this film resonates on such a greater level. All the side characters are fun and interesting and I’m sure all the various parodies will open the floodgates for some enthusiastic young moviegoers to discover film’s roots. Those are all wonderful perks of this story. And yet again, Greg Gaines feels so relatable it’s almost scary at times. He’s so insecure on so many levels, drifting in and out of the school corridors, awkward around dying girls, and awkward around girls in general. Most of this I pointed to already in my initial review.

However, it’s the work of director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon along with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung that contribute an added layer of depth to this film. The gracefully spiraling camera is at times reminiscent of Ophuls ascending a staircase. There are perfectly symmetrical shots popping with colors that Wes Anderson would most certainly approve of. But like the great minimalists out there, the camera is still when necessary. In poignant moments when Greg and Rachael have real, heartfelt, even hurtful conversations, there’s no need for flashiness. It’s in these moments where those behind the camera prove their skill because we can see them having fun with their artistic vision, but we also notice the great deal of care they have for these characters.

meandearl2It never feels flashy or superficial in these crucial moments. Any slick plot device or cinematic allusion falls away to get at the heart and soul of this film. It’s about coping with death and finding closure in that terrible event in life. Specifically for this one young man, but it is universally applicable to most every one of us. Especially when you’re young because as young, naive individuals, death can feel like such a foreign adversary. It’s so far removed from our sensibilities, and that’s what makes it so painfully unnatural when it strikes. In many ways, Greg is our surrogate. For all those who struggled to find themselves in high school, or college, or even life in general. And for all of those, who took risks on friendship in a world full of death and dying. Once more Me & Earl and the Dying Girl proved its worth, not by being a perfect film, but by being a heartfelt one.

4.5/5 Stars

Lola (1961)

Lola1961As the debut of Jacques Demy, Lola has some qualities that, for lack of a better term, are very un-Demy. First off, he was a member of the French New Wave period of filmmakers and yet he resigned himself to making mostly musicals, taking inspiration from Hollywood and setting them in his own unique world. He was not concerned with the experimenting or political undertones of many of his peers. However, this is probably the most typical looking of his work and thus a jumping off point for the rest of his career.

Not quite as elegant in camera movements as Max Ophul’s work which received a nod, Lola still has a pleasing sleek visual style representative of the French New Wave. Its silky smooth, black and white cinematography courtesy of Raoul Coutard (Breathless), however, makes the film look more like something from Godard.

Lola is what Demy himself coined “a musical without music,” I suppose because it lacks the signature singing of his later films, but keeps the music and some of the other elements. Demy’s film also has a sense of cinematic realism with characters crossing paths with one another in various coincidental moments. It may be highly unbelievable in its plotting and yet it works within the Demy world of romance and fatalism which he would often revisit later on.

lola3This film follows a cabaret singer named Lola (Anouk Aimee) in a small seaside village called Nantes. She has a young son and a lover who she has long waited for. In the meantime, childhood friend Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) trudges on with his life without much drive. He is a befriended by a lady and her daughter Cecile at the local bookstore where they strike up a quick friendship. Then, by chance Cassard runs into to Lola, or Cecile as he used to know her when they were children. It’s been many years and although she has been getting together with an American sailor (Alan Scott) named Frankie, she is excited to go out for an evening with Roland. However, in another interesting meeting young Cecile runs into Frankie while buying a comic book and they have some fun together.

lola6In the end, Lola tells Roland that she will never truly love him and they must remain friends. It’s a bitter time for Roland as he decides to leave like he was originally planning. Finally, Michel returns and Lola is reunited with her love. It’s another bittersweet tale of love from the mind of Jacques Demy. Whimsical, poignant, and wistful too. That’s not the last we will see of Roland, though his luck doesn’t get much better (Umbrellas of Cherbourg), and  Lola returns too (Model Shop). Now only to go back and watch The Blue Angel (1930) from von Sternberg and Lola (1981) by Fassbinder which both bookend this work by Demy also chronicling a cabaret singer. There’s a lot of history here still to be seen and Jacques Demy is a worthy addition to the lineage even if this is not his best film.

4/5 Stars

Caught (1949)

Caught_(1949_film)Max Ophul’s Caught is an interesting mix of soap opera drama and dark, brooding noir. It follows aspiring model Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), who is obsessed with improving herself through charm school, landing a modeling job, and finding a rich husband. She’s not the only one in a world of young pretty girls who thinks money makes the world go round.

She’s a little bit different than the others, but they have slowly made her buy into the whole system. Then, one night she gets what all these gold digging girls could only dream of, she meets the filthy rich and oddly-named Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), and it’s all quite by accident.

Soon more to prove a point than for love, Smith marries Leonora, and she tries her best to love him like a good wife. But he’s too busy and too difficult to get close to. She spends all her days stuck at home and unhappy with Smith’s hired aide Franzi Kartos (Curt Bois). Leonora realizes she needs something else and heads out to get a job away from Smith and his money.

The first opportunity she gets is as a receptionist for the doctor’s office of a kindly young pediatrician and his older colleague across the hall (Frank Ferguson). He pegs her as an odd applicant from the beginning but allows her to come on and work. Once she commits, Leonora proves to be a hard worker and she and Dr. Quinada (James Mason) hit it off, though he still finds her peculiar.

Once more, Lcaught2eonora tries to patch things up with Ohlrig who begs her to come back home, which she does. Because she wants their marriage to still work out. However, Leonora also gets some big news from a doctor that complicates the situation. She truly is caught. She cannot leave Smith due to their marriage and other difficulties while her affections truly lie with kindly Dr. Quinada who feels the same.

Ultimately, there has to be a showdown and so there is. Leonora has to make her decision. Then Smith has one of his angina attacks and she doesn’t want to help him. It causes her increased guilt and ensuing complications. But Ohlrig doesn’t die and Leonora finally has the future she wants with Quinada.

caught3Max Ophul’s was always a master with these types of melodramas and his trademark dolly shots are as prevalent as ever, developing some of the scenes wonderfully. It becomes more than a plot but a visual presentation too, and the shots often are augmented by how he moves in and about a room.  Robert Ryan steps into the villainous role easily and James Mason is a surprisingly amiable good guy. Also, though his role is small, Frank Ferguson is nonetheless pivotal and thoroughly enjoyable as a fatherly figure. Of course, Barbara Bel Geddes is a worthy protagonist, because she is ultimately the one trapped between her two male counterparts and she is the one who goes through the most mental torment with Ohlrig potentially being close behind.

Above all, Caught is a timeless indictment not simply of corrupt capitalism but a generally misguided philosophy that money is everything. Quinada has the best approach, realizing that money is necessary, but it can never buy you happiness or remedy your relationships. Smith never figures that out and it is difficult for Leonora to leave that worldview completely behind — as it is for many of us.

4/5 Stars

A Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

8cc43-letter_from_an_unknown_woman_posterThe place is Austria. The time around 1900. This tearful romance is framed by a lovely plot device in the form of a circular narrative. As the title suggests a woman writes a letter to the man who she has always loved. As she relates their story, he slowly pieces it all together.
Lisa was a shy and timid girl. She becomes acquainted with dashing piano prodigy Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) from afar as he has moved in next door to her mother’s home. She is a quiet observer of all he does, sharing in each one of his musical triumphs and seeing his friends (mostly women). Lisa even goes so far as to attend dancing school, so that she might learn good manners to impress him someday. Most of all his playing enchants her each and every evening as she silently listens to his gifted hands.
Thursdays were rug beating day and on one such day, she got her chance. She met Stefan’s kindly mute servant and secretly enters the shrine of her love for one blissful moment. However, things quickly change as Lisa’s widowed mother has a beau who wants them to come and live in Linz. So they move away from the oblivious Brand, but the wistful Lisa takes one last visit to her old home.
Soon she is introduced to the stately Liet. Leopold and as time passes he graciously asks for her hand. Taken aback, Lisa balks and mentions another in Vienna who her parents do not know of (and who does not know her). No one understands the reason why, only she does, and she is not one to tell. Lisa, however, moves forward and begins to model dresses for rich clientele. Finally, as a grown woman she has her first true face-to-face encounter with the man whom she worships.

Thus, begins their enchanted time together. He does not quite understand the gravity of the situation, but she is content in just being with him. That is enough. No explanations need to be made. Their evenings are spent eating lobster, walking through the streets, taking a train ride all over the world, and munching on caramel apples. Top it off with a passionate embrace followed by a kiss and the fairy tale ending seems to be imminent. But as we already suspected, it is not that easy, and a train rapidly takes him out of her life.

As time passes, she has a son who is Stefan’s boy, but she resolves not to tell him and raise him by herself. For a while, it is a struggle, but she gets remarried and she seems happy enough with a comfortable lifestyle, a gentlemanly husband, and a cute son. Stefan Brand is now a washed up has-been who used to have a wealth of talent 10 years ago. At the opera, he happens to cross paths with Lisa, a strangely familiar figure, and she realizes that she must go to him. She is absolutely ecstatic to be reunited with her first love, but all too soon it becomes evident he cannot remember her. He is fascinated by her the same way he was 10 years ago, but he has forgotten. Unrequited love hurts too much and a broken marriage is already upon her. As her son before her, Lisa’s life is taken by Typhus and all that is left of her is this letter for Stefan.
 
All that’s left for him to do is hit his head in despair. He let her slip through his fingers, if only he had known. If only his servant had not been mute, because he knew who the girl was. Brand has new resolve, however, and instead of running away he faces an unpleasant fate with honor. 
Joan Fontaine is as sweetly demure as ever, and she fits this role so beautifully with her narration being a wonderful guiding hand to the film’s story. Her character slowly grows and matures in front of us, and yet one thing remains unchanged, her love of Stefan Brand. In some ways, the label of a “woman’s picture” has a negative connotation, but really all it refers to is a film that takes the point of view of a woman, or it focuses specifically on women. These stories crafted by men during the 40s and 50s were meant to be weepy tales for women audiences. Looking back now, however, they can resonant with all audiences and in this case some of that is due to the direction of Max Ophuls. 
Ophuls camera is hardly ever stagnant, following Joan Fontaine as she moves, with gracefully smooth sweeps and tracking shots. Give him a staircase and it becomes almost a playground for him to move about as he sees fit. What we are left with is an elegant look, because the movement does not take away from the elegance but actually accentuates it. No one could accuse the camera of being hurky-jerky, and it makes the impact of the stationary camera that more potent.
At an approximately 86 minute running time, A Letter from an Unknown Woman is a marvel because it is laced with character development, romance, and drama that builds steadily and reaches a teary crescendo.
 
4.5/5 Stars