Director Max Ophüls spent a few frustrating years in Hollywood while the Nazis were in power in his native Germany, then moved to France after World War II and made four films noteworthy for their clever narrative construction and sweeping theatricality. Ophüls' work in the '50s followed aristocrats and commoners alike as they hopped from bed to bed, taking pleasure in the defiance of social and sexual convention without realizing how typical they actually were. Ophüls staged their stories as a series of short, expertly crafted scenes, in which the actors dwelled on the comic subtleties of human interaction while Ophüls moved the camera around them at odd angles, like an eavesdropper craning his neck to take it all in.
Ophüls' landmark run began with 1950's La Ronde, based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler, whose work later formed the basis for Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Divided into 12 vignettes, La Ronde begins with a prostitute who picks up a soldier, then continues with the soldier and a housemaid, then the housemaid and her young master, and so on. The characters are sketchy by design, but the set design is wondrously opulent, and Ophüls cleverly picks up on Schnitzler's central theme, about how sexual desire erases class distinctions. La Ronde is also about what happens the morning after, with some partners smitten, and others in a hurry to escape.
The 1952 anthology film Le Plaisir adapts three Guy de Maupassant short stories and is subsequently a little more scattershot, ranging from the pat and ironic to the deliriously grotesque to the heartbreakingly wise and lovely. ("La Maison Tellier" represents the latter with its nuanced tale of a brothel that closes for a night and befuddles its regular customers.) But Ophüls followed Le Plaisir with a film that completes the thought he started with La Ronde. In 1953's The Earrings Of Madame De…, Danielle Darrieux plays a general's wife who hocks some jewelry to pay a debt, then later gets the jewels back, after they've been passed around a small circle of secret lovers. The style, tone, and even the music of Madame De… all help define a group of people who make outward shows of happiness, yet see reminders of what they're missing in every mirror and every bauble. Like nearly all Ophüls characters, the society dames and gents of Madame De… feel independent, but are pulled along by circumstance, and by the choices they make in the throes of passion.
Key features: Somewhat stiff, scholarly commentaries on La Ronde and Madame De…, loving introductions by Paul Thomas Anderson (on Madame De…) and Todd Haynes (on Le Plaisir), and an assortment of interviews and shot-by-shot analyses on each.