When people have asked me to name the greatest film of all time—in my humble opinion, of course—my instant answer has been unvarying for the past 30 years or so: Max Ophüls’ Madame de … (1953).Sarris then names a few of this movie's most passionate supporters, which include the likes of Pauline Kael and David Thomson. Then Sarris raised an interesting question: is there a generation gap when it comes to the work of Max Ophüls, and does that extend even to his widely acknowledged masterpiece? I haven't seen Madame de... since college. I remember falling in love, mesmerized by not only those tracking shots but also by the lightness of touch, and by the idea that we can't ever truly know our lovers. Unlike, say, Ugetsu, another "sublime" objet d'art from 1953 loved by the same set of critics (and which I stupidly dismissed at the time as melodramatic tripe), it's a tragedy played more like a waltz than an opera.
But I wonder if I hadn't been unduly influenced by Sarris and Kael's raves, included in Confessions of a Cultist and I Lost It At the Movies respectively, which read more like descriptions of first orgasms than proper movie reviews. (As perhaps the ultimate formalist, Ophüls tends to elicit reviews that are little more than recounts of rapturous virgin viewings -- see also Thomson's Biographical Dictionary entry.) And it does seem peculiar that Madame de... is not especially celebrated among the younger set of critics I know, and Ophüls' rep in general appears to have lost some luster, even as Ophüls-devotee Stanley Kubrick has now become the supreme godhead for twentyandthirtysomething movie buffs. Can it be that Ophüls' quaint romanticism just doesn't hold up for young contemporary audiences, as Sarris surmises? Is this peerless formalist, like Griffith, Rossellini, and Ford, something of a fallen master, known for a style that has lost resonance with contemporary movie enthusiasts?
Perhaps so. His other movies that I've seen are impeccably filmed and highly sensitive to the wronged woman's conflicted heart, but also are flawed in some fundamental way. If Godard had mistakenly decided to make Contempt not the story of a marriage but as a tragic character study of Brigette Bardot, it might've turned into Lola Montes, one of the most beautiful films ever made about an utterly vapid character. La Ronde is very clever. A nice little woman's pic/noir hybrid, Caught's somewhat underrated but lacks urgency. Le Plaisir is a trifle. And if martyred naifs are your thing, Letter from an Unknown Women is about as good as it gets. It's naturally the only one of his movies I don't like. Have yet to see La Signora di Tutti and Leibelei, and The Reckless Moment is actually number 1 on my must-see list, but who knows when it'll be screened again, or when the DVD rights will finally be cleared? After surveying this uneven body of work, doubts arise concerning the director's position in the pantheon. But even if Ophüls is downgraded, we're still left with that inimitable style and that camera that pirouettes and glides across the set so gracefully that aesthetes are left weeping with joy in their seats, a "vindication of cinema," in the words of Thomson.
We're also left with Madame de...which I'm anxiously hoping will be as breathtaking as I remembered. I fear it may be like sex with an old lover -- the reacquaintance can never live up to your memories of past encounters. Oh, drat, now I'm resorting to this lame metaphor.