Opening Movements in Ophuls

Curator's Note

This audiovisual essay was created at the wonderful NEH-funded workshop in videographic criticism at Middlebury College, ‘Scholarship in Sound and Image’. Designed as a standalone essay, it also has a relationship to a chapter I am writing for an edited collection – Gibbs & Pye (eds), The Long Take: Critical Approaches (London: Palgrave, 2017). My hope is that these different approaches to the material will complement and amplify each other.

The essay provides an analysis of the orchestration of long takes and camera movement in the opening of Caught (Ophuls, 1949), and develops a comparison with the opening of Madame de… (Ophuls, 1953 – U.S. release title The Earrings of Madame de…), not least through a series of juxtapositions which can be directly presented and compared in an audiovisual essay.

The openings share a concern with the subjectivity of the female protagonists and our relationship toward it, evoking the women’s experience while balancing this with other kinds of perspective. As has been noted in the critical literature on Ophuls, and on melodramas of passion more generally, such views enable us to perceive the women concerned to be caught in material and ideological frameworks of which they are at best partially aware. Among the interests of this particular comparison, however, is the extent to which the dynamic around female subjectivity is played in relation to luxury goods, imagined, owned or admired. Tensions between on- and off-screen spaces and sounds are critical to the interest of the long takes under discussion. Camera movements subtly inflect the extent to which we are aligned (or otherwise) with the characters and the ways in which their material circumstances are revealed to us.

My wider research is interested in extending the methods, subjects and histories of style-based criticism. Working on the intersection of the detailed critical tradition and the rapidly developing videographic field seems an exciting opportunity; the implicit invitation of the best work in style-based criticism is to compare the argument advanced on the page with another viewing of the film, and the audiovisual essay is able provide particularly rich ways of moving between evidence and argument, creating new opportunities to appreciate the detailed organisation of films in motion.

As Ian Garwood argues in [in]Transition 1:4, developing Christian Keathley’s critical categories (as Keathley himself does in his curatorial essay in the first issue of the journal), one should not underestimate the poetic in the explanatory. Explanatory videographic work gives plenty of scope for expressive effects; to assume otherwise is similar to thinking that continuity editing serves solely to establish continuity, in false opposition to more overtly expressive editing strategies. Taking part in the Middlebury workshop provided insights into the strengths of a range of audiovisual essay forms: one of the interests in working on the approach followed here was exploring what happens when attempting to develop a detailed argument about the complexity of the moment through the moving form of film.

In relation to this last point, Susan Smith’s reader’s report wonders what the implications of using freeze frame might be for the spatial and temporal flow central to the films’ strategies: is the analytical intervention here at odds with Ophuls’ approach, predicated as it is on long take and camera movement? The use of freeze frame is partly a practical necessity: exploring the richness of these sequences in words will always take more time than the expression of these ideas by means of film – as V.F. Perkins argues in the article I quote in the essay, ‘Films are constructed so as to address our minds in the knowledge that mind is much faster and more comprehensively perceptive than intellect’ (‘Must we say what they mean?’,  Movie, No. 34/35, (Winter 1990), pp. 1–6. p. 6). One response to this challenge was to play parts of the sequence under consideration more than once, another was to deploy freeze frames, in a manner which I like to think evokes the movement of film on a flat-bed editing table, spooling through one moment, pausing at the next. My hope is that these moments of repose help us to appreciate the texture of the film, the richness of Ophuls’ decision making.

David T. Johnson praises the use of freeze frame in the essay, describing it more eloquently than I have managed to. His report invited me to reflect on the extent to which the essay might be an attempt to animate the tradition of style-based criticism – could it even be considered an ‘adaptation’ of the Perkins and Britton’s articles, both quoted from in the essay? Johnson has certainly identified one of the impulses that has motivated my research and critical practice more generally: a concern with celebrating – and in some cases unearthing – the tradition of style-based criticism when it had fallen from favour. ‘Critical archaeology’, the phrase he uses, is very similar to one I’ve employed elsewhere. And great pleasure and insight can be derived from animating Perkins’ analysis of the fly-swat moment in Caught, or illustrating Andrew Britton’s words on Madame de … with the images or sounds which they address – by means that weren’t available to these critics at the time they were writing. This is, nevertheless, ‘an attempt to make a new, fully realized argument that draws on both Perkins and Britton but is also trying to push scholarship on Ophuls into new directions’. One way of characterising the relationship between my argument and those of Perkins and Britton might be to suggest the essay is in dialogue with the work of these critics – juxtaposing their writing, dramatising the elements they are discussing in Ophuls’ films, which then provides a basis for developing new insights.

Finally, as others have noted, the process of working videographically provides effective ways of seeing and understanding the object of study more clearly. One small example here: in organising the section of the essay which presents the subsequent circulation of the earrings in Madame de… across twelve moments where we see the characters giving, selling or buying, it became clear that there are three distinct rounds made by the earrings, each carried across four moments of exchange: the first is driven by convenience; in the second the earrings express genuine feelings between the three central characters, if disguised; in the third cycle the transactions around the earrings have become displaced and emotions misdirected or unwisely invested. I have tried to suggest these patterns in the way these fragments of the film are presented.

Disclaimer: This video was produced out of the “Scholarship in Sound and Image” workshop at Middlebury College, June 2015, as funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


John Gibbs teaches film at the University of Reading, UK. He is a member of the editorial board of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism and series (co)editor of Palgrave Close Readings in Film and Television. His publications include Mise-en-scène: Film Style and Interpretation (2002) and The life of mise-en-scène: visual style and British film criticism, 1946-78 (2013).