Couch Trip 

Max Ophuls' brief, poignant sexual trysts, an oversized ant farm, pirates, terror tongs and death cults La Ronde, Le Plaisir and The Earrings of Madame de ...

Thanks to these three ravishing Criterion discs, all four of Max Ophuls' postwar European masterpieces (Lola Montes being the other) are now on DVD in the United States. It's a wonderful and long overdue occasion because, as assistant director Tony Aboyantz suggests in the interview supplements for Le Plaisir, Ophuls is a director who still hasn't gotten his proper respect outside of cinephile circles.

Like many artists, the German-born Ophuls fled Germany for America when the Third Reich ascended to power, establishing himself in Hollywood with late-'40s classics like Letter From an Unknown Woman — perhaps the most heartbreaking film ever made — and The Reckless Moment. But his legacy stems largely from these titles made in France during the 1950s, dazzling pictures with sympathetic women that helped to contradict his private reputation as a womanizer.

The first of these, La Ronde, is a playful adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's oft-filmed stage play about a cycle of brief but poignant sexual trysts. No sex acts were actually shown, of course, but the movie turned out to be a lightning rod for controversy nonetheless. Certainly, promiscuity and infidelity have never been portrayed on the screen as joyously (or as naturally) as they have in La Ronde. In the film's central metaphor, love is a merry-go-round operated by Anton Walbrook's chameleonic narrator, who introduces this conceit while making cameo appearances in each vignette in this sexualized round-robin.

The characters engage in amour often while philosophizing about it, making the proceedings feel like turn-of-the-century Eric Rohmer miniatures. It's no surprise Rohmer and his French New Wave colleagues would go on to champion Ophuls in their trailblazing Cahiers du Cinema criticism: The film is self-reflexively ahead of its time, anticipating Jean-Luc Godard in its deconstruction of the medium (Ophuls cuts away from a sex act to a shot of Walbrook literally cutting the scene from the film stock with scissors, a wry comment on censorship) and Alain Resnais in its stunning tracking shots.

Ophuls' famous fluid camera — dollying up stairs and through corridors, tracking from exteriors to interiors and from room to room — is on even more impressive display in Le Plaisir, a triptych of Guy de Maupassant stories brought to vivid life. The stories — about an elderly man trying to relive his Don Juan youth, a brothel staff's revelatory journey to the country, and the self-destructive relationship between a painter and his model, all touch on Ophuls' recurring theme of the cost of pleasure. Each is full of surprises and caustic dark humor.

La Ronde and Le Plaisir both explore the transience of love and desire, and in the case of The Earrings of Madame De ..., what better way to continue that theme than to make the key to the heroine's desire the elusive earrings, which ping-pong their way between all three main characters numerous times in Ophuls' shattering melodrama. It's a sister to Letter From an Unknown Woman in terms of its emotional impact, and it once again reveals the director to be a master of the tracking shot.

The supplements are generally entertaining and instructive, with actor Daniel Gelin offering warm anecdotes about his experiences working with Ophuls. The best supplement is an introduction to Le Plaisir by director Todd Haynes, who provides a trove of brilliant insights. By comparison, Paul Thomas Anderson's dull mini-commentary for Earrings is neither as well-informed nor as perceptive.

Film scholar Tag Gallagher's video essay on Earrings is interesting but will quickly bore those not interested in dense, shot-by-shot theory. Alan Williams offers a better mix of audience accessibility and film-theory acumen with his helpful study of La Ronde. —John Thomason

Phase IV
Legend Films

They're not cute. They're not cuddly. And they aren't very scary. Ants are the bastard insects of the exploitation genre known as "nature run amok" — spiders and hissing cockroaches have been stealing the spotlight for decades. Aside from Joan Collins' cheesy flop Empire of the Ants, the little formicidae creatures have gotten the shaft in film. But here's one you can add to your list: A 1974 psychedelic sci-fi flick that isn't some cheapie B-movie with radioactive super-sized ants. In the hands of the legendary Saul Bass, the ants get the respect they deserve.

Bass, you'll note, turned credit and title sequences into an art form on more than 60 films. If you've seen a Hitchcock movie, then you've caught his work. Phase IV was Bass' only full-length feature and it's a heady mix of ideas not usually found in the genre. Here, an unexplained celestial occurrence has altered typical ant behavior. Warring species of ants have stopped fighting and become a single colony while many of their natural predators are vanishing. Two scientists are sent to observe them but before one can call the Orkin Man, they discover the ants are now organized and intelligent. Phase IV features some great close-up, Discovery Channel-worthy shots to show the ant colony's inner workings. Their world is filled with sacrifice, mourning and teamwork. Bass juxtaposes this with the human world, which is clinical, remorseless and cutthroat. The man vs. nature struggle gets a boost from Bass's acid-induced imagery and geometric visual aesthetic. This flick doesn't raise ants to the heights of its insect brethren, but it'll make you think twice before grabbing a can of Raid at your next picnic. — Paul Knoll

Icons of Adventure

Fans of matinee B-movies have suffered through most of the DVD area. While many genre films are available on disc, the tangled nature of licensing and public domain issues — not to mention the relatively small audience for these films — has meant that far too many of the action and adventure films of the '50s have made their way into dollar bins on low-quality DVDs marred by subpar transfer and reproduction technology. Someone over at Sony, however, seems to actually care about the massive library the corporate media monolith owns. This two-DVD collection still provides plenty of bargain bang for the buck — four movies and three shorts for a list price under $25 — but the quality of the transfers is simply astounding. All four of the films — The Pirates of Blood River, The Devil-Ship Pirates, The Stranglers of Bombay, The Terror of the Tongs — are Hammer Studios productions, but none of them are the horror films for which the British studio was best known. Instead, these pulpy actioners are about pirates, Fu Manchu, and an Indian death cult, and, despite the comparatively primitive production values, hold up rather well in this era of Captain Jack and Indiana Jones. In fact, it could be argued that all four of these flicks (three of which feature Christopher Lee) are actually better than today's summer blockbusters; after all, it's these breezy, workmanlike adventures that Verbinski and Lucas-Spielberg were desperately attempting to emulate with their multimillion-dollar budgets. —Jason Ferguson

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