What better way to spend an evening than by watching a 1939 French melodrama by a German director, dubbed into Italian and given a simultaneous translation into English by our own private benshi film narrator David Wingrove?
SANS LENDEMAIN (Without A Future), directed by Max Ophüls, is perhaps a minor work by this great director, but it beats the pants off DE MAYERLING A SARAJEVO, made the next year. That curiously flat follow-up to Anatole Litvak’s highly successful MAYERLING (Litvak, Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer — Hollywood contracts all round!) never quite takes off, has few Ophülsian flourishes, and ends with a weird newsreel montage intended to stir the people of France to intense resistance to the oncoming Nazi threat. Since France’s active participation as a combatant in WWII ended about 30 seconds later, the need for Ophüls’ propaganda exercise was swiftly obviated, and he fled the country.
But this slightly earlier film has lots and lots going for it. Edwige Fieullére plays the lead, as she would in DMAS, and she’s a classic Ophüls suffering woman sacrificing all for love. In a great film like LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN or THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE… this would be completely convincing and compelling, both psychologically and sociologically. This being merely a good film, the thrust of the story doesn’t carry as much wait, and it’s possible to object to the tragedy: “If only…” or “Couldn’t she just…” But it still has an impact.
Ophüls attempts plenty of broad stylistic effects in this one, and there are several of his long tracking shots as well, plus elaborate crane movements following characters up staircases, an Ophüls staple. One weird moment sees a snowfall of what appears to be feathers, pouring slowly past a cabin window. I was reminded of the amazing moment in MADAME DE… when a torn up letter thrown from a carriage dissolves into a snowfall.
Fieullére plays Evelyn, a fallen woman working as a stripper and dance hall hostess at La Sirene, a sleazy yet oddly Paris beautiful night spot. The director and his crew — designer Eugène Lourié (a favourite of Renoir’s) and cinematographers Eugen Schufftan (the man with his own PROCESS) and Paul Portier, assisted by Henri Alekan(!) go all Von Sternberg on us, bisecting and trisecting the screen with lace and veils and curtains. The Divine Max also fills the screen with tits, much as he did in DIVINE, the ’30s French answer to SHOWGIRLS.
Meeting the great love of her life (and probable father of her child) after ten years, Edwige concocts an elaborate and expensive charade to convince him that she’s still the virtuous woman he once loved — not to deceive him into marriage, but simply to experience a few days of the love she once shared with him. Since she cannot afford an expensive apartment to carry off the deception, she borrows money from a gangster and pimp. The stage, as they say, is set…
(Murdo, Hound of Zaroff, runs past La Sirene clutching a human hand in his jaws.)
Quite a few of the director’s effects don’t come off in this film, and there are sometimes so many ravishing compositions to choose from that the editor apparently gets confused, and confuses us in turn. But Ophüls frequently impresses, and finally attains the sublime, right at the end of this film, with three shots of desolating ABSENCE. The places seen minutes before are shown once again, minus the characters.
It’s like a thirty-second sketch for the end of Antonioni’s L’ECLISSE.
“I adore the past. So much more restful than the present. So much more dependable than the future.” ~ Anton Walbrook, LA RONDE.