Ain't Misbehavin' (Un voyageur) (Marcel Ophuls - France/Switzerland) 106 minutes
Marcel Ophuls’ first film in 19 years could well be his last and it may only owe its existence to the veteran documentary maker’s difficulties writing. Having promised François Truffaut many decades ago that he would write his memoirs at the end of his career, Ophuls admitted to clamming up in front of a blank page and instead decided to make a film of it. The result is a confessional documentary similar to Raymond Depardon’s Carnets de France from last year and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality, which also screened during Director’s Fortnight at Cannes this year.
Despite being a great filmmaker in his own right, Ophuls has always lived in the shadow of his father Max, director of La Ronde, Lola Montès and Letter from an Unknown Woman, among other classics of the cinema. It is something he has always been able to accept but it has caused some self-doubt – at one point in the film he wonders if his early positive reviews were because he was his father’s son, and his father was someone who could do no wrong with the critics. The younger Ophuls (his family changed his name from Oppenheimer) had a strained relationship with his father, who was stern and neurotic and also an incorrigible womaniser (not doing too bad for a short, balding middle-aged man with a thick German accent). Marcel was also closer to his mother, presumably out of solidarity with her long-suffering married existence.
The family moved from Berlin on the coming to power of the Nazis when Marcel was just five years old and then set up shop in Paris, where Max Ophuls directed a number of features to pay the bills. When war broke out, they went to Switzerland but promptly returned to France when Max, fearful of being thought of as a deserter, enlisted in the French Army. In 1940 however, the Ophuls’ had to once again flee the Nazis, making it to Hollywood. Max was a bit too late to the game though with most of the big directorial jobs being taken by fellow Jewish émigrés such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Michael Curtiz and Robert Siodmark, who had all moved over several years earlier. He ended up having to hustle for whatever work he could get, yet still managing to produce a clutch of masterpieces such as Letter from an Unknown Woman and Caught.
This peripatetic childhood made Marcel equally fluent in German, French and English, and it also exposed him to some legendary figures from a young age. We hear of Bertolt Brecht advising him that ‘there is no such thing as plagiarism’, Preston Sturges inviting the family over for an umpteenth screening of The Great McGinty and Marlene Dietrich dragging him out to a lesbian night club in Paris. Despite his father’s connections, it was François Truffaut who would open the door to filmmaking for Marcel. After a couple of minor fiction films on the margins of the New Wave, he switched to documentaries, making The Sorrow and the Pity, a monumental four-and-a-half-hour documentary on wartime collaboration and resistance in the French city of Clermont-Ferrand. The film set the tone for the rest of Ophuls’ career, a masterly probing interrogation, skewering the ad hoc moralisms of post-war France. It was a huge success and was banned from French television until 1981. Woody Allen referenced it in Annie Hall – Ophuls shows us the letter of thanks he gets from Woody. It is an example of the self-indulgence we often see on screen in Ain’t Misbehavin’ but given Ophuls’ general conviviality, not to mention the splendour of his work, it is forgivable.
The film is as much an essay as it is a memoir, with some enjoyable riffs on memory and preferences for remembering in a certain way. Ophuls also treats his failures as readily as he does his successes. Often they were indistinguishable – where he had a torrid time working on the Nuremberg trials film Memory of Justice and which he walked away from, it was equally popular with the critics as his Klaus Barbie documentary Hotel Terminus, which won him an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1989. He also revisits many of the places from his past (the French title of the film is Un voyageur) which gives an extra dimension to something that might have otherwise remained a flat documentary. Peppered throughout are extracts from Ophuls’ true love, the Hollywood films of his youth and contemporary jazz greats, such as the Fats Waller tune of the title. It is a film that Ophuls could easily have made in his sleep but, for all its lightness, it puts to shame the dull eulogistic documentaries that do so well at the box office these days. One of the most enjoyable films of the year.