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At the cinematheque: "La Signorra di tutti" (Ophüls, Italy, 1934)

Daniel Kasman
La Signora di tutti (1934), a film Max Ophüls made in Italy, bares all of the director’s trademarks but suffers from awful, awkward storytelling. Along with his moving camera, Ophüls is known for his frequent use of elaborate flashback framing devices that start his stories. In La Signorra we find Gabriella (Isa Miranda), a famous film actress, collapsed in her bathroom before a film shoot. Now under anesthetic on the operating table, Ophüls starts the story that will bring Gaby, as she is called, to this point of illness and desperation. This cinematic roaming through a person’s romantic past will later, as in Lola Montès (1955) with the circus and with Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) with the, uh, letter, form very sophisticated subjective flashbacks, but here the scenes of Gaby’s life comes across as erratic and unmotivated. Part of the allure of Ophüls’ unusual use of heavy flashbacks is the gaps they suggest to the viewer, the missing pieces the storytellers pointedly rush over or don’t mention. Since we are, more often than not, dealing with deeply romantic figures, the oft-crazed, oft-uncontrollable emotions they have inside them can lead to less than ideal outcomes, and Ophüls’ storytelling moves at a stone-skipping-across-the-water clip that may (or may not) elide the darker events and impulses of his characters’ lives. In his best films, as in those mentioned above, these gaps and discontinuities are intriguing; but here in La Signora di tutti they are less motivated and come across more as sloppy inconsistencies in the drama rather than mysterious suggestions by a master storyteller.
Strangely enough, it is not Ophüls’ extreme stylization that has this awkward result. It is a marvel to see this early Ophüls and realize his audacious camerawork and ornate set design was already apparent in 1934! His techniques here includes but are not limited to: long takes, long tracking shots, single-take sequences, 360-degree camera panning, shot/reverse-shot cutting through dissolves, triple cross fades (a shot dissolving into a second which dissolves into a third, meaning three separate moving images overlapping at the same time), and, perhaps most impressively, a shot/reverse-shot conversation that takes place between a man driving a moving car and Gaby rowing a moving boat! Ophüls really gives precedence to the ability of the camera; to first and foremost let it, through movement, express impressionistically a kind of combination of emotion and subjectivity. It is this latter quality that is perhaps most important, as Gaby, like Joan Fontaine’s character in Letter to an Unknown Woman may be qualified not only as a bit mad but also more than a little responsible for her own elaborate downfall, and therefore the moving camera helps explain a psychology that the drama does not.
And this drama does not. Rarely have I seen a film that feels so much contempt for linking things together, linking in terms of everything ranging from how one scene or event leads into the next to how one character changes from shot to shot. Isa Miranda, as the ill-fated heroine who seems to attract scandal like a magnet, and who also delivers one of the most supremely mediocre on-screen performances I have ever seen, seems to simply be fed lines culled from whatever dime-store romance was laying around the set that day. The movie literally goes from a scene where she denies a kiss to the old husband of the infirmed rich woman Gaby has befriended and been taken in by, to admitting (with no between scene or transition of mind or emotion) that she loves and desires to run away with him! The whole film is built on sudden, unexplained changes like this. And as interesting as it is to have a questionably intelligent/sane narrator combined with a curious framing device (flashback while under the knife!), neither the actress nor the script nor even the direction is strong enough to use these discrepancies or point them somewhere, as Ophüls so successfully does in later films.
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