Just over 50 years after his death, Max Ophuls may well be having his moment. Despite the continued unavailability of his Hollywood films (including, most frustratingly, Letter from an Unknown Woman), this year has seen the DVD releases of three of his greatest movies (La Ronde, La Plaisir, and The Earrings of Madame de…). These lovely Criterion Collection discs have provided a serendipitous prelude to the American debut of Rialto’s definitive, restored print of his infamous, magnificent final film, Lola Montes. It is tempting to try to make something of this surge of interest in Ophuls. Like Kenji Mizoguchi—the great Japanese director whose own oeuvre has also recently become more available on DVD, and one of only a handful of directors worthy of a comparison to Ophuls—his is a cinema of elegant, precise camera movement, where tracking shots reveal and negotiate complex chronologies and social hierarchies, particularly as they relate to questions of gender and femininity.
For those seeking to answer the question, “Why now?,” Ophuls’s preoccupation with woman, as subject and social category, provides the most obvious talking point: to a culture that has been forced in the past year to engage in a national political conversation about sexism, Ophuls must be as relevant now as ever. Andrew Sarris, the American writer probably most responsible for securing Ophuls’s reputation in this country, has made the point explicitly, positing an analogy between Lola Montes‘s deconstruction of America’s empty celebrity obsession and the political ascendance of Sarah Palin. But Sarris’s knowledge of and appreciation for Ophuls’s work is too deep to allow him to push heavily on the point. While we should rightly celebrate the renewed interest in Ophuls, there is a danger in straining too hard to find significance in its timing—of course, Ophuls is always relevant, but we do him a disservice by somehow reducing his movies to a comment on the present. His themes are persistent; his command of craft is practically unrivaled; his films are endlessly rewarding and enduringly watchable.
Click here to read the rest of Chris Wisniewski’s review of Lola Montes.