Max Ophüls’ French film The Tender Enemy (1936) is a cute lark, echoing many of the director’s favorite themes in a mostly comedic fashion, and not amounting to much more nor desiring to. Presiding over the wedding of a young girl in a stately mansion are two older ghosts, who appear at the ceremony to gaze at the beautiful, widowed mother of the bride. One ghost turns out to be her dead husband, the other, her dead lover! Each humorously tells their own story, starting with the husband reflecting on his poring money and possessions all over his new bride but the couple unable to come to terms, arguing violently even after moving to Paris to add a spark to the marriage. In Paris the wife falls in love with a tiger tamer, who reacts somewhat ambivalently to her clinging affections. In fact, he was on his way to take her back to her husband when the husband walks out on her and quickly drops dead, abandoning the dissolute lover with his amorous widow. She clings to him throughout an illness and he too soon dies—this time at the hand of his own tiger—due to her attention. The two men decry the downfalls this woman has brought upon them when, suddenly, a ghost in the form of a young sailor appears to chastise them for such cruel thoughts. In his story, which takes place before either husband or tiger tamer were in the picture, the boy was the woman’s first love, but her family disapproved of the match and he was sent away, whereupon he promptly shot himself. The ghosts realize that the wife treated them terribly only because she lost her true love, and for the rest of the film they endeavor to save the young bride from the same mistake as her mother by stopping her wedding to a rich fool and getting her to run into the arms of her true love.
If this description sounds more humorous and jaunty than most of Ophüls’ output that’s because it is; it even has a happy ending, a true rarity in the oeuvre of a filmmaker who emphasizes the ups and downs of every relationship. The idea is great, that the perceived cruelty of a person’s life was in fact the desire to cover up a bitterness and unhappiness early on in an idyll of love. The execution however…wavers. The double-project ghosts aren’t really that funny, and like in La Signora di tutti (Italy, 1934), the director is limited both in the time taken to tell his flashbacks and in the talents of his actors, producing rather tame drama and tepid comedy from the situations. Still, there are many pleasures, from the rough and loose arguments between husband and wife that start with the camera pointed at the feet of the pacing couple, throwing objects around the floor of their Parisian hotel room, to the comedy of awkwardness of the tiger tamer trying to escape to a medical asylum for his illness but faced with the clingy, absurd jealousy of the widow who thinks he is running out on her (which he kind of is). The film’s triumph is not its happy ending but rather the sublime sadness on the face of the young sailor when he reads in a servant’s note that his true love cannot run off with him but that she is promised as a bride-to-be to a rich man. It is a long, sorrowful pause in a movie that propels itself at quite a clip, and lends some true emotion to what is, at most, a cute exercise.