Francois Truffaut on Max Ophuls
On May 15, 1957, Arts published François Truffaut's article "You are all witnesses at the trial, French cinema is breaking apart under false legends" and the following week it published his article "Cannes: a failure dominated by failure, schemes and faux pas". These two articles at that time were probably more responsible for his notoriety as a film critic. Because of these two articles, he was not invited to the Cannes Film Festival in 1958. What follow here is the opening of "You are all witnesses..." which actually is a paean to Max Ophuls. It is my translation and that article was reprinted in "Le Plaisir des yeux" on page 212.
Is cinema an art?
In the majority of cases the conclusion is summed up in the word, "yes". There are always exceptions which prove the rule.. And in that case, the conclusion is this: cinema is not an art, since films are the result of a collective work, film is the work of a team.
One could declare quite clearly that, contrary to what is written in all film histories, contrary to what is asserted by directors themselves, film is no more the work of a team than a novel, a poem, a symphony or a painting.
The great directors, Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Max Ophuls, Robert Bresson and a great many others write the films that they themselves direct, even when they find inspiration in a novel, a play, or a true story, the point of departure is only a pretext. A filmmaker is not a writer, he thinks in images, in terms of mise-en-scene and writing bores him.
The role of the scenarist/dialogue-writer compared to the director is limited to that of technician -- the finishing touches on the dramatic design, a trick to "clinch" a complicated plot, some guidelines for the dialogue. The screenwriter talks with the director and "passes the ball back to him"; in the end, the titles mean nothing and that is so. Cécil Saint-Laurent and Annette Wademant who are, respectively, credited with the screenplay and adaptation of Lola Montès aver to me that Max Ophuls preserved nothing of their work. Both are no less great admirers of the film in question and of Max Ophuls.
If I cite Lola Montès, it is because this film constitutes a perfect example of a film whose director is the unique responsable (the only one in charge).
and One day, I visited Max Ophuls. He welcomed me to view the "rushes"; This was a lengthy shot of the Nice road, artificially reddened by Ophuls, the leaves themselves had been tinted. Max Ophuls was not in the projection room and Christian Matras, the first-class cinematographer of the film, did not conceal his disgruntlement, "You never see a red road, and these leaves, they aren't natural". The cinematographer of Lola MontèsOphuls' closest collaborator was in the dark on the film-maker's intention. He did not even know why Ophuls had him paint the road and the leaves. (Each episode in Lola Montès corresponds to a season, the sketch of the adventure with Litz had to be autumnal.)
Thus, it is no exaggeration to claim that Max Ophuls was his own cinematographer, in as much as you find the same style of photography in all his films while Christian Matras shot for Till L'Espiègle, as an example, color photography which was first-rate but very different.
Another time, i went to the studio to see Ophuls: he was preparing a shot which he would film that afternoon. The setting portrayed was the apartment of Martine Carol in Nice where Peter Ustinov came to ask her to re-enact her life in his circus. Along the staircase -- Ophuls work is loaded with staircases since the action of climbing steps is much more physical than walking -- there were small clear tiles. Ophuls was arguing with the production-manager, his old friend, Ralph Baum. "Ralph, I want colored tiles, in different colors, in place of these tiles." The production-manager does his job by conciliating the artistic desires of the director with the financial imperatives of the producer.
"Max, we don't even see these tiles on the screen since the crane's movement is so rapid that we very quickly see Ustinov appearing at the top pf the stairs."
"Ralph. I absolutely need these tiles to be colored."
In my mind, Ralph Baum was justified as it seemed evident that this detail was unimportant.
On the day that I saw the film for the first time - a day to mark with a red-letter - I noticed that after my departure from the set, Ophuls had won his point.
I saw Ustinov's silhouette, profiled behind colored tiles, climbing the stairs with a heavy thread - like an elephant - accompanied by circus music and I understood Ophuls' intention. Ustinov is a man of the circus and his arrival in Lola's life had to evoke the ambiance of the circus, not only, through the music, but also, through the different colors, the multicolored ambiance of the circus ring, the tinted spotlights.
The directors whom I have already said think in images are averse to explaining themselves in words. They as modest as the scenarist is not, whence Ophuls refusal to explain his his intentions to his closest collaborators.