More thoughts on #914. The Reckless Moment (1949, Max Ophuls)

I couldn't help but notice the coincidence of watching two films consecutively about housewives whose encounter with a menacing intruder becomes a vehicle for their own subversive self-fulfillment. Both Intentions of Murder and The Reckless Moment are remarkably accomplished works by masters. I admire Imamura's unsettling treatment of character and tone and unsentimental embrace of unsavory workaday subjects. But Ophuls gets the edge in my book primarily on two grounds: pacing and character identification. Of course this is subjective, but whereas I found Intentions of Murder to be a bit plodding at times, The Reckless Moment, which clocks in at half the length of the Imamura, covers a remarkable amount of narrative in less than 80 minutes. Again, each director has their own vision of time and space, and it may merely be that Ophuls' way of presenting life's rhythms and spaces cuts much closer to my own experience. It's just so compressed. There's a near-constant flow of things from scene to scene, especially when Lucia is roaming through packed public spaces on her errands or weaving through family members at home. This sequence is perhaps my favorite -- things just keep coming at poor Lucia, and she's constantly moving, and every stop is like another corner of her world to contend with. [googlevideo]7324143827869146941&hl=en[/googlevideo] I should disclose that I identify not a little with Lucia's way of handling life's demands. Further into the issue of character identification: Imamura has his own carefully calculated treatment of his hapless protagonist, keeping the audience at a certain distance to hold easy sympathy for this woman at bay, while making her simple-mindedness an uneasy virtue. Ophuls establishes a similar tension in his treatment of Lucia Harper. Like Imamura, Ophuls shoots his heroine mostly in distancing medium and longshots (according to Lutz Bacher's DVD commentary track, the Columbia Pictures front office thought Ophuls was making mistakes by not getting more coverage of scenes; ironically Ophuls' master shots was a way for him to follow the studio edict of staying under schedule and budget). In many of the exterior scenes Harper dons sunglasses, obscuring her visage from our gaze. And even in some of her more intimate scenes with James Mason as the "bad guy", Ophuls frames them such that we see (and effectively identify with) more of the open-faced Mason than Joan Bennett.

One could see this as indicative of how the film blends the dominant 40s genres of film noir and melodrama, such that our domestic heroine is seen through femme fatale lenses. The question arises, why do this? Well for me the answer lies in the effect, which I would describe as that of vividly reflecting the state of mind of Lucia Harper and how she sees her own place in the world. It has the same effect as Lucia's restless perpetual motion as described above, dealing with whatever comes her way, such that she dispatches with a murdered man on her property the same fussy determination with which she chides her children. In other words, she's always in the middle of everything, always moving things along, but hardly moved herself. There is a kind of shell around her, which Ophuls makes clear in one shot after another. It leads to some intriguing visual juxtapositions of her predicament. There's a persistent sense of her being in view. Even when she is getting rid of the body with no witnesses within sight or hearing, there's a row of lakeshore homes in the background give a sense of scopophilic portent:

And take this scene where Mason and Bennett discuss illicit plans rather brazenly given that they're in a crowded diner. Ophuls places an Asian man to accentuate the effect -- he's framed in such a way to suggest he could be eavesdropping on their conversation (but given that he's an Asian in 40s America it is unclear if he can understand what he may be overhearing):

Tag Gallagher:

To talk about Lola Montès, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Sans lendemain or La signora di tutti as though Ophuls, like Mizoguchi, is championing the oppressed female is to disfigure women who resolutely create themselves and who consent to be an object of gaze only in order to assert themselves as subject.

These moments of bad behavior in plain sight reveal a paradox in Lucia Harper's enactment of her roles. On the one hand, she has taken her matriarchal duties so far as to risk her public standing to protect her daughter. But, as Gallagher suggests, there is an element of choice to this sacrifice. Her flagrant public appearances with Mason flirt with being a kind of rejection of her appointed public personae of faithful wife and housebound mother. One can step back and see the whole narrative this way -- by becoming the surrogate for her daughter's involvement with shady underworld types, she not only fulfills her ostensible role of protecting her daughter, but she also gets to experience a momentary escape from her domestic prison, the very same escape that her daughter sought in the first place.

Lucia Harper desires every moment of this crisis imposed on her, even as it brings her to the verge of self-destruction, because it pushes her ever closer to a full-on confrontation against the narrow confines of her life -- and as viewers, we see her ever more closely and we feel the yawning anxiety that no amount of domestic tasks completed can soothe.  Her existential foray proves only to be temporary.  Just like her daughter came running home after being betrayed by her art teacher and would-be lover Ted Darby, Lucia returns to the household, begging her husband to come home.  It is worth noting that when Lucia is on the verge of confessing everything to the authorities (and therefore permanently putting scandal on herself and her family -- I have to wonder if it isn't just a sense of resignation, but if there isn't a supressed desire on her part to do this) it is two characters on the social fringes -- Mason's huckster and Bennett's black maid Sybil (played with brilliant watchful understatement by Frances Williams - Todd Haynes referenced her for his own black maid character named Sybil in Far From Heaven) -- who aid in the cover-up and usher her back to normalcy. In the end, there is no escape for Lucia, only a return to a perpetual masochistic compulsion caused by living one's life for others. But this film does not put us in a position to judge or pity her condition, even as it leaves its heroine behind the prison bars of a staircase in her home. Ophuls' grand achievement over these 80 minutes is in transplating her imprisoned soul upon our own.