Eugene Archer (essay date 1956)
SOURCE: "Ophuls and the Romantic Tradition," in Yale French Studies, No. 17, Summer, 1956, pp. 3-5.
[In the following essay, Archer identifies Ophuls as the most controversial figure in French cinema.]
La Ronde opens with the introduction of an autonomous entrepreneur, an addition to the text of Schnitzler's Reigen, who functions in the stylized manner of a Shakespearian Chorus. Wandering through a deserted sound stage, this enigmatic figure, suavely played by Anton Walbrook, regards his audience with polite disdain as he establishes the point of departure for the film. The theme, he announces, is love, in all its variations; the setting Vienna, gauzy and ornate; the mood nostalgia (violins commence an Oscar Strauss waltz); the time "le passé" ("J'adore le passé," he thoughtfully explains). By the time this curious combination of headwaiter and puppeteer has started the carousel which symbolizes La Ronde, it is clear that he is a calculated device carefully designed to lure audiences into acceptance of a point of view long considered outmoded: the stylized sentimentality of Lehar, Zweig, and das süsse Mädel.
In the works of Max Ophuls, who created and obviously inhabits the guise of the blasé Compère, the modern French cinema has divorced itself entirely from the issues of contemporary civilization and retrogressed into an aura of unadulterated romanticism. This unexpected throwback to an almost forgotten tradition has been greeted by a mixture of damns and praises from discerning critics, and has established Ophuls as the most controversial figure of the modern French cinema. Ignoring the tastes of his critics (perhaps as disdainful of them as his identification with the Compère would indicate), Ophuls has continued along his predetermined pattern to create a formidable body of work. His lavish films, garnished with performances from the ablest and most expensive actors on the European screen, have attracted an amount of international attention which requires an appraisal and revaluation of Ophuls' individual esthetic genre.
An acceptance of Ophuls' extreme romanticism is essential to an understanding of his work. Born in Germany in 1902, Ophuls followed a devious cinematic route before arriving at the present fruition of his career. His first important film, in 1932, was German (Liebelei); this was followed by insignificant work in Italy, England, France (De Mayerling à Sarajevo, 1939, is the most notable film of his early period), and an unsuccessful apprenticeship in Hollywood (Letter from an Unknown Woman, Caught, The Reckless Moment). Throughout this formative period, Ophuls, continually uprooted by World War II, retained as a personal characteristic only his nostalgic absorption with the romantic past. He returned to Paris in 1950 to direct Greta Garbo and James Mason in an adaptation of Balzac's La Duchesse de Langeais. When insufficient financing dissolved the project, Ophuls remained in Europe to create La Ronde.
Admirers of Schnitzler's Reigen, vexed at the director's disregard for the bitter cynicism which set the tone of the...
(The entire section is 1320 words.)