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Homage to a Master of Technique

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

When dealing with the films of Max Ophuls, superlatives are unavoidable. Not just from critics like Andrew Sarris, who said that Ophuls “gave camera movement its finest hours in the history of cinema,” but from humbled fellow directors like Stanley Kubrick, who simply said, “His camera could pass through walls.”

Born in Germany, Ophuls ended up making more than 20 films in five countries (France, Italy, Holland, the U.S. and his homeland) and, someone once wrote, “could have made a film in Japanese without understanding a word of the language.” “Circles of Desire: The Cinema of Max Ophuls,” the evocatively named 16-film series starting Friday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, helps explain why.

For though we’re used to the razzle-dazzle visuals that have become more standard than not in this MTV world, no one before or since has made the camera dance as sublimely as Ophuls, who was a master of tracking and crane shots.

Co-workers might joke about “Max and his tracks,” but to see an Ophuls film, especially one of the four he made in the 1950s (“La Ronde,” “Le Plaisir,” “The Earrings of Madame de . . .” and “Lola Montes”) before he died prematurely at the age of 55 in 1957 is to see something very special.

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For who could replicate the sensual, caressing nature of Ophuls’ camera movements, or the unself-conscious ease with which they’re executed? Unlike so many of today’s baby auteurs, Ophuls was never showy for the sake of being showy, and his movements (done in collaboration with a variety of cinematographers) feel so natural, so intrinsic, that you’re enjoying the shot before you even know it’s happening.

Ophuls’ masterpiece, at least for me, is the almost unbearably moving and beautiful “Earrings” (screening Saturday at 7:30 p.m. along with the lovely 1932 “Liebelei”). An elegant, visually opulent piece of work, it uses Ophuls’ ravishing technique and a superb cast to turn the trifling story of the peregrinations of a pair of diamond earrings into an indelible French romance.

Danielle Darrieux stars as the beautiful and pampered Madame de . . . , a countess whose last name we never learn. She is forced to secretly sell a pair of earrings, an expensive wedding present from her philandering husband (Charles Boyer), a prominent general. “We only sell to men because of women,” the jeweler tells her. “Discretion is part of our profession.”

But in the first of the film’s series of betrayals, the jeweler confides in the general, and the earrings begin a journey that takes them first to Constantinople and then back to Paris, where each change in ownership symbolizes the ebb and flow of love from one character to another.

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Bringing the jewels back is an Italian diplomat and baron (Vittorio de Sica), a friend of the general who is introduced to the notoriously fickle countess with the expectation that the two will engage in the usual superficial flirtations of the bored rich.

Instead, the countess and the baron find themselves in danger of committing the ultimate sin in their heartless world: genuinely caring for each other and allowing true feeling to penetrate their luxurious, suffocating lives.

Ophuls’ lifelong fascination with camera movement bears exceptional fruit in this film, especially in its visual centerpiece, a montage of gliding, gilded balls in which the countess and the baron realize they are falling in love, a sequence that has to be one of the most visually sublime ever put on film. “The highest reaches of the actor’s art begin, I believe,” Ophuls famously said, “at the point where words cease to play a part,” and those words are made flesh nowhere more eloquently than here.

“Earrings” is also noteworthy because it illustrates one of the director’s recurrent themes: his empathy for women in distress due to the callousness of unscrupulous men. Though his heroines were not timid but strong women capable of taking things into their own hands, heedlessly ill-starred romance was very much the specialty of the house in these films.

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In 1949’s “The Reckless Moment” (Oct. 15 at 7:30 p.m.), one of the most interesting of Ophuls’ Hollywood films, the peril is more tangible than usual. Joan Bennett plays a Newport Beach Mother Courage who gets into major trouble protecting her headstrong teenage daughter from an odious gigolo. The film is notable for its subtly drawn characters and psychological acuity and for an almost perfect performance by that consummate film actor, James Mason, as a reluctant blackmailer.

Ophuls’ other U.S. high spot is 1948’s “Letter From an Unknown Woman,” which opens the series on Friday along with “The Exile.” A classic romantic fantasy of the Hollywood-meets-Old-Vienna variety, it stars Joan Fontaine as a woman who spends her entire life paralyzingly in love with a thoughtless concert pianist (Louis Jourdan). Critic Molly Haskell called Fontaine’s character “a militarist of love,” and the power of selfless passion is one of Ophuls’ preoccupations.

The LACMA series is also noteworthy because it allows a rare chance to see some of Ophuls’ earlier works, almost unknown in this country. A good example is the 1934 Italian “La Signora di Tutti,” translated as “Everybody’s Lady,” the melancholy story of a movie star who is cursed by the ability to drive men wild, coupled with an inability to find someone to share her private life with.

Finally, it wasn’t only camera movement that caused Ophuls to inspire rhapsodies of admiration. As critic Philip Lopate wrote when a version of this series opened in New York, “no other director in the history of movies wrung so much emotional resonance from cinematic technique.” We’re so used to seeing those qualities go their separate ways that watching them work together is close to inspirational.

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‘Circles of Desire: The Cinema of Max Ophuls’

The series schedule, with all film programs starting at 7:30 p.m. at the L.A. County Museum of Art, Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6010:

Friday: “Letter From an Unknown Woman,” “The Exile.”

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Saturday: “The Earrings of Madame de . . .,” “Liebelei.”

Oct. 15: “The Reckless Moment,” “Caught.”

Oct. 16: “La Signora di Tutti,” “La Tendre Ennemie.”

Oct. 22: “Komedie om Geld,” “Le Plaisir.”

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Oct. 23: “La Ronde,” “From Mayerling to Sarajevo.”

Oct. 29: “Lachende Erben,” “Die verkaufte Braut.”

Oct. 30: “Lola Montes,” “Die verliebte Firma.”


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