Criterion Sunday 503: Lola Montès (1955)

This is one of those grand European follies (like Les Amants du Pont-Neuf in more recent times, perhaps) which burned up money in its production and then failed spectacularly at the box office, but it’s the last film by the great director Max Ophüls and if it’s a failure, it’s a spectacular and beautiful one, immaculately staged and choreographed. Of course, as a film, it’s not a failure at all, but perhaps it just didn’t suit the tastes of the mid-1950s audience. It’s set a hundred years earlier, around the time of the revolutions of 1848, and tells a story of a courtesan and (apparently fairly indifferent) dancer known primarily for her liaisons with rich and powerful men, such is the way of that era’s stardom. Martine Carol in the title role is a glamorous presence but, when seen from the vantage point of her later years performing in a circus, a curiously voiceless one, as the ringmaster Peter Ustinov puts most of her words into her mouth. I don’t think that’s a failure of acting, though: if she feels underwhelming, it’s because her life has pushed her to this, and the flashbacks in which her story is told find her with more agency and a more vibrant presence. But acting aside this is a film peculiarly constructed in the staging and shooting, as beautifully framed widescreen images are composed, and the emotional movement of the story is as evident from the camerawork as from the screenplay or acting. Undoubtedly a film to lose oneself in on the big screen, it’s one of cinema’s great films by one of the medium’s finest directors.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel La Vie extraordinaire de Lola Montès by Cécil Saint-Laurent); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, Will Quadflieg, Oskar Werner; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 30 July 2000 (as well as earlier on laserdisc at the university, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 7 January 2022).

Criterion Sunday 451: Fanfan la Tulipe (1952)

You can’t go into this 18th century swashbuckling romance with any kind of expectation of realism, for this is surely as silly as they come. A young man played by the dashing Gérard Philippe is given a prophecy by a fortune teller (Gina Lollobrigida) that he takes to heart, even as it’s swiftly revealed to be an army recruitment scam for her dad during the Seven Years’ War. The setting may be redolent of Barry Lyndon but this has the dashing spirit of The Princess Bride with more than a little mid-century European comedic flavour that may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s hardly offensive. Just extremely silly, as sabre fights make way to horseback chases, the King’s daughter Henriette, the King himself (Louis XV), romantic trysts and honestly, I sort of lost track about two-thirds of the way in.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Christian-Jaque; Writers René Wheeler, René Fallet, Christian-Jaque and Henri Jeanson; Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Gérard Philippe, Gina Lollobrigida, Olivier Hussenot, Noël Roquevert; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 27 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 445: Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…, 1953)

It feels a little as if historically this penultimate film by Max Ophüls has been somewhat undervalued due to its focus on jewellery, dancing, grandiose set design and its melodramatic storyline, but of course I think we can all rate it as one of his finest achievements now. Truly, his visual style reaches its apotheosis in his last few films, with the famed sequence of ballroom dances over time to convey the development of a romantic relationship just being one of the great sequences that Ophüls devises for the camera of Christian Matras. It also has an intricate plot construction, with the final movement achieving a certain emotional pitch that feels satisfying even as events unravel for all our major characters. It’s a glorious piece of work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Marcel Achard, Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel by Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 16 July 2000 (earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 2000, and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Wednesday 30 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 444: Le Plaisir (1952)

This is a film of three stories, though the first and third are rather brief and function more to introduce and close out the themes of the film, about pleasure of course (the title is clue to that at least), but pleasure as it’s intermingled with various more fleeting things like ageing and death. That first sequence, in focusing on a grand ball, also introduces us to Ophüls’ favoured camera style that loves decadence and the drama of a set combined with the elegant choreography of both bodies and camera in space. That said, for all his gliding camera work, much of it settles down in the longer central segment to deal with a group of women (prostitutes it would appear, not that we see anything so uncouth as coitus) on a group trip to the countryside to celebrate the madam’s niece’s first Communion. In that respect, it already breaks our expectations of prostitutes in film, but the simple bucolic charms of the country and their presence there neatly dovetail with the exploitation (if not unhappiness, so far as we see) back at work. There’s a sub rosa commentary on patriarchal society that runs through all three stories, of an older man desperate to regain his youth (and the youthful affairs that went with it), and an artist who objectifies a model he falls in love with in the third story, along with the women of the central section, free from the tawdry expectations of the men who habitually surround them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Jacques Natanson and Ophüls (based on the short stories “Le Masque”, “La Maison Tellier” and “Le Modèle” by Guy de Maupassant); Cinematographers Philippe Agostini and Christian Matras; Starring Madeleine Renaud, Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, Daniel Gélin, Simone Simon, Jean Servais; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 27 July 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Monday 28 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 443: La Ronde (1950)

A typically elegant Max Ophüls film that luxuriates in that fin de siècle Viennese atmosphere, fully revels in it indeed as Anton Walbrook leads us as viewer through the various pairings, addressing the camera, changing costumes and acknowledging the artifice of what began as a play by strolling past film cameras and even at one point “censoring” a scene by snipping the celluloid. This could of course come across as altogether too arch, but it feels like a way of making the material — which concerns a series of sexual trysts between various members of Viennese society — somehow more refined than a simple recounting of the plot might suggest. Perhaps if anything it’s just a little too sophisticated for such frolics, but it holds itself so elegantly, with a gliding camera and the glow of the lights, that I can forgive it its longueurs.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Jacques Natanson and Ophüls (based on the play Reigen by Arthur Schnitzler); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Anton Walbrook, Simone Signoret, Simone Simon, Serge Reggiani, Danielle Darrieux, Jean-Louis Barrault; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 23 June 2021 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1999).

Criterion Sunday 402: La Voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1969)

In his long career, Buñuel hardly shied away from the merciless mockery of religious hypocrisy, and that’s sort of the entire point of this film. It is essentially a kind of episodic comedy with a series of vignettes serving to set up a series of situations in which people argue on points of religious schisms, which when set out in this way can’t help but seem utterly absurd and futile. The plot, such as it is, hangs around a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela being undertaken by two men (Paul Frankeur and Laurent Terzieff), though they seem pretty happy to hop in a car when it suits them, and they don’t seem particularly committed to the more spiritual aspects of the journey, which don’t just travel through space but also just as often through time as well. Still, the director has his customary fun with Jesus (Bernard Verley), priests, monks and other holy men, and those who aspire to holiness, and I can’t deny its at times anarchic humour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière; Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Paul Frankeur, Laurent Terzieff, Édith Scob, Bernard Verley, Alain Cuny; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at home (Google Play Movies streaming), Wellington, Thursday 25 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 1: La Grande illusion (Grand Illusion, 1937)

There’s something almost a little unfashionable, it seems to me, about filmmaking in the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps because fashions and lifestyles in the lead-up to world war were just a little more buttoned-down and less flamboyant, and stories had to keep pace with dolorous political events. But this also means it was a time when stories of great humanity and soul were being made, not least by French filmmaker Jean Renoir, whose great masterpieces of this era still sit solidly near the top of ‘best ever’ film canons. La Grande illusion is Renoir at the top of his form, crafting a beautifully-shot story of class antagonism set at a German prisoner of war camp during World War I. It depicts a changing world, where the aristocrats in charge (Pierre Fresnay’s de Boeldieu, and Erich von Stroheim’s von Rauffenstein) find that the extreme events of war have united them with people they’d not usually fraternise with (Jean Gabin’s mechanic Maréchal and Marcel Dalio’s Jewish nouveau riche Rosenthal, among others). It’s clear that each has different ideas of the value of war and about how it should be conducted, and ultimately the film sides with the lower-class characters, implying that aristocratic values are increasingly irrelevant and doomed to disappear. (Would that this had been proven true in the real world, where Renoir’s warnings about war’s futility were hardly taken on-board, and where our current ruling classes hardly seem to have moved on in some respects.) It’s all beautifully filmed in shimmering monochrome, and in the end somehow uplifting, despite the setting.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with these early Criterion DVD releases, there are some text-based extras, although the Press Book essays are fairly informative.
  • There’s a brief demonstration of the film’s restoration, and indeed the print is sparkling and gorgeously-toned.
  • An audio excerpt of the film winning at the 1938 New York Film Critics Awards has the voices of Renoir and von Stroheim.
  • A trailer presents not the film but instead Renoir talking about the film and his experiences making it (looking back from the late-1950s).
  • Finally, Peter Cowie’s commentary is attentive to the film, giving some background and discussing some of the issues that Renoir raises.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Renoir and Charles Spaak; Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio, Dita Parlo, Erich von Stroheim; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 October 2014.