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BAM Maxes Out

Peter Ustinov and Martine Carol in Lola Montès, screening this weekend at BAM

By Miriam Bale

Max Ophüls had at least four careers: He made films in Germany, Italy, America and France from the '30s through the '50s. In Leibelei, a perfect tragedy from 1933 about doomed love in the snow, he established his identifying tone of the always impending broken heart but had his name removed from the credits by Nazis in his native Germany. He later made iconic American melodramas in the forties before relocating to France, where he made La Ronde in 1950. From techniques that he explored in La Ronde he went on to make three masterpieces: The Earrings of Madame de..., the exquisite La Plaisir and the certifiably crazy Lola Montès.

All of these films are screening as part of the current Ophüls series at BAM; the latter two are playing this weekend, along with La Ronde. (Leibelei screens Dec. 10, while Earrings arrives Dec. 15-16.) The waltz is the theme of La Ronde; it's the actual musical theme by Oscar Strauss that carries the story, a waltz of 11 lovers changing hands as if they were dance partners at a ball. Ophüls's swooping tracking shots also seem to glide around as if dancing. His constantly moving camera has none of the aggressive swagger of Scorsese's restless shots, moving more femininely instead, with twirls and swiveling hips.

Though not as celebrated as Ophüls's ambitious camera movements, his ultra-deep framing devices are even more remarkable. Light criss-crosses complexly across the screen, and props (usually lamps or houseplants) placed in the extremes of both back and foreground are used to extend dimensional length. The characters are centered in these busy tableaus, often partially obscured by curtains or blinds. By shooting scenes through windows, Ophüls set up frames within frames.

He employs a similar distancing device with the self-reflexive ways in which his narratives are constructed. "Who am I?" asks the narrator in the beginning of La Ronde. "Author? Passerby?" But it's clear that he is Filmmaker when he uses a film clapper to transition us between lovers or is shown cutting out a lovemaking scene from a reel of film. In Lola Montès the director is represented by Peter Ustinov as a circus ringmaster surrounded by primary-colored midgets and juggling ballerinas. In the center ring is Lola Montès, courtesan and fallen woman. "How many lovers have you had? What are your measurements?" the audience shouts at her as Ustinov leads into tales of her life in a tone that's tragic yet sardonic, accepting of life's grotesqueries.

Lola Montès is about memory, but La Ronde and La Plaisir exist in a place between memory and experience that viewers are guided through -- by that waltzing camera -- at a whirlwind pace. "But I have no memory," as a pretentious author character in La Ronde describes his romance. "Our drama lies in the continuous marriage between frenzy and organization." This is also a self-conscious description of Ophüls's own work and the great technical skills he used in creating the immediacy and melancholy of a passing moment.

BAM's Max Ophüls retrospective screens through Dec. 18; visit the theater's Web site for program and schedule information.

Seduced and Abandoned is a regular feature about repertory cinema highlights in New York. Miriam Bale programs the monthly series The Movie Night Disco at Frank's Lounge in Fort Greene.

Posted at December 5, 2007 1:51 PM

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