(Max Ophüls, France/Italy, 1951)
My first Ophüls, and yes, I am ashamed that it's taken me this long. His reputation as a master of the moving camera is, of course, entirely just, and the primary pleasure of this film is in its lush, fluid surfaces. After the beauty of the visuals, what impressed me most were the uniformly excellent performances, especially the three leads: Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, and Vittorio De Sica.
It's a whirlwind romance of a film, starting off confection-sweet and ending surprisingly sour. This transition, notable as an example of Opüls' directorial craft, is accomplished with aplomb, subtly but effectively shifting from the lighthearted (and often very funny) moments of the introduction to the stately tragedy of the finale. It's a mannered film, though, fastidiously elegant, and it never really relinquishes its sense of charm and propriety. There's no madness, no threat of emotions bursting from the frame; it's a classical piece, not wanting for emotion but evoking it through the perfection of technical elements. I guess I mean that while the subject of the film is the fickle and irresistible hand of fate, the form remains controlled and slightly elevated; above the fray of the character's messy, unpredictable emotions.
Even so, it's the handling of the mood, and the perfect showcasing of the actors, that keeps the film working, and that showcases the astounding authorial control of Ophüls. Naturalistic moments of grace occur with regularity; there's a comfort to the performers, a joy in their expression and their craft, that's echoed by Ophüls own palpable joy in the glittering, ornate sets and costumes, and of course, the sinuous, roving camera, unspooling like a velvet ribbon (or a strip of film) from joy to sadness, from frivolity to gravitas.