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After tackling one of the darkest periods in modern history with the legendary films The Sorrow and the Pity and Hotel Terminus, documentary maestro Marcel Ophuls reveals a lighter side of himself in the freewheeling autobiography, Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Un Voyageur). Indeed, Fats Waller’s famous standard is a sly way to summarize the life of a man—as well as that of his father, the great Max Ophuls—who was actually quite the bad boy, stubbornly sticking to his guns throughout a touchy career and having a blast while he amusingly tells it all to the camera. Further fest berths, plus niche theatrical and pubcast spots should follow a bow in the Directors’ Fortnight.
Hardly a straightforward—or even, in parts, chronological—retelling of his life, the film may be a bit obtuse for those viewers not already familiar with Ophuls’ background and work, as well as with the many masterpieces (La Ronde, Le Plaisir, Letter from an Unknown Woman) directed by his father in both Europe and the U.S. For instance, the fact that Pity was officially banned by the French government for more than a decade is only referenced at a few points, while the politics behind such a decision (and its eventual revocation by the Mitterand administration in 1981) are never really explained.
Instead, Ophuls seems to be having a grand old time playing the feisty raconteur, retracing his story from his early days in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich, until the family fled to France, and eventually, to America, where Max Ophuls (as Marcel always calls him) went on to direct several movies for the studio system. Providing fascinating anecdotes about his dad’s experiences with the likes of Preston Sturges and Howard Hughes, for whom he worked on the ill-fated 1950 thriller Vendetta (until Hughes kicked both Ophuls and Sturges off the movie), the filmmaker offers up a rare account of a European director trying to navigate the Hollywood labyrinth of the time.
Once the family settled back in France after the war, the young Ophuls managed to cross paths with then film critics Jacques Rivette and Francois Truffaut, who were interviewing his father for the Cahiers du Cinema. Several years later, Ophuls would run into Truffaut on the Champs-Elysees, striking up a friendship that would last until the Truffaut’s untimely death, and that would also include actress Jeanne Moreau, whom Ophuls chats with during a lengthy restaurant scene.
That sequence eventually turns a bit weird, to say the least, when Ophuls asks Moreau if Truffaut and his wife once had an affair, and the movie does get quite personal and anecdotal at times, with the director delving into both his dad’s and his own sexcapades (including a near affair with Marlene Dietrich, who was twice his age at the time), and relating several suicide attempts caused by what has clearly been a tumultuous, though long-lasting, marriage to his wife Regine.
More intriguing are the stories of growing up during the chaotic war years—an experience that clearly shaped Ophuls’ vision when, following an unsuccessful stint in fictional filmmaking, he began working for French public television, covering the May ’68 riots and then going on to direct his most major work: the powerful Vichy regime indictment The Sorrow and the Pity. (Which Ophuls explained was mistitled “The Shame and the Pity” on the original NYFF posters made for its U.S. debut.)
But even that part of his life is underscored by a sense of humor and joie de vivre, with Ophuls showing off a thank you note Woody Allen sent him after using Pity for a gag in Annie Hall (for which he plays the famous scene). Ever proud of having brushed paths with some of the past century’s greatest directors –whether his father, his father’s biggest admirer, Stanely Kubrick, Otto Preminger or Frederick Wiseman, whom the cineaste chats with on a ski trip — one gets the impression that Ophuls is forever hiding behind others, and Ain’t Misbehavin’ is ultimately a lively and somewhat self-effacing portrait of an artist whose work is anything but forgettable.
Tech credits, including HD lensing by longtime collaborator Pierre Boffety, seem more suitable for TV than for the big screen, while the interviews are accompanied by oodles of excerpts, ranging from Max’s and Marcel’s combined filmographies to clips from Sturges, Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch and even The Wizard of Oz.
Production companies: The Factory, Arte France, Herodiade Films, Inthemood…, INA
With: Marcel Ophuls, Jeanne Moreau, Frederick Wiseman
Director: Marcel Ophuls
Producer: Frank Eskznazi
Director of photography: Pierre Boffety
Editor: Sophie Brunet
Sales Agent: Wide House
No rating, 110 minutes
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