MADAME DE… & SANSHO THE BAILIFF: Notes on the Long Take in the Cinema of Ophuls and Mizoguchi

Written by Paul Monticone

Although not programmed together in this series, Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi and citoyen du monde Max Ophuls share much in common. Both filmmakers were born at the turn of the century, and each died before he turned sixty, just as the international art cinema was entering its heyday. Each often worked in genres associated with women—Ophuls in the melodrama and Mizoguchi in its Japanese analogue, adaptations from shinpa theatre. Both filmmakers are regarded as mature, baroque artists, probably because they are known primarily through their late period films (in Mizoguchi’s case, the majority of his early work is lost), but both were active during the transition to talking pictures, making films when the vagaries of early synchronized sound briefly made the long take the art’s norm. Perhaps it was at this time that Mizoguchi and Ophuls developed an affinity for the device, which became a cornerstone in the distinctive and renowned style of each master. A series celebrating high-brow cinephilia—which Janus Films undeniably represents—is certainly occasion for a note that is purely formalist in its concerns, so, at the exclusion of their complex themes and fascinating biographies, I offer some notes on how we might value the contribution of Mizoguchi and Ophuls to the art form today.
In contemporary Hollywood, the long take, a shot of extended duration, is something of a lost art. Among the complaints one hears about today’s filmmaking—its craven opportunism, coarseness, indifference to narrative—invariably one will find something about “MTV style cutting.” As films are made to be seen on increasingly smaller screens (televisions, computer monitors, iPods) and in increasingly distracted conditions (at home, on an airplane, on the T), filmmakers have been obliged to increase their shot scale (we see much more of actors’ faces than bodies), creating easily legible but simplified images, which must be varied often in order to maintain viewer interest, hence the increased pace. The rapidity with which images change is not so much a problem—see: Sergei Eisenstein—as the simplified images that necessitate it. As David Bordwell points out, much as critics hold up incoherent action sequences as emblematic of Hollywood’s mediocrity, in a multiplex (or, frankly, an artplex) we’re more likely to see pictorially dull images of actors faces cut together frantically (to create “graphic interest” and “momentum”) as they deliver dialogue from opposite sides of a table.
This is not the case everywhere, and the international art cinema, perhaps in reaction to tendencies in American popular filmmaking, has developed a proclivity toward the long take. Filmmakers such as Tsai Ming Liang, Chantal Ackerman, and Gus van Sant routinely produce shots several minutes long, but they rarely recover the narrative communicativeness or richness perceived as lost in Hollywood’s frenetic cutting rates. Rather, the project of such filmmakers is to eschew narrative itself, lingering on human routines—eating, smoking, sitting in a room, wandering a rented Seattle mansion—and oblige the viewer to focus on their detail and duration long after the basic narrative point (character A is washing character B, to cite a typical situation from Tsai’s new film) has been made. In the work of such directors, time often becomes its own virtue. Not only are we shown something differently than we would be in a Hollywood film—that is, in long take rather than quickly cut fragments—we are shown something different from narrative film—denarrativized space and action, roughly speaking.
It’s an admirable end—opening up our experience of film in several directions there’s no space to explore here—but an unfortunate consequence is that certain masters of another sort of long take are now overlooked, seeming somewhat conventional (or, worse, just not long enough) by comparison. But Mizoguchi and Ophuls should not be thought of merely as prototypes of today’s stylistic mavericks. These notes seek to reaffirm what is so unique about the type of long take employed by Mizoguchi and Ophuls, what makes their art both so radically different from contemporary Hollywood and—arguably—so much richer than many of today’s celebrated long take masters.
In Madame de…, Ophuls uses the long take to stage the relationship of the two lovers—Baron Donati and the eponymous heroine—physically in relation to one another and to the camera, such that circular motifs become dominant. During their first meeting in the train station, the camera stays with Donati, in the center of the frame, as Madame de approaches from the left background, passes in the foreground, and exits onto the platform in the right background; Donati’s magnetic attraction to Madame de, present in the action (the diplomat’s business with customs officials), is both amplified and made fleeting by the camera’s contrasting track and pan. Their second meeting—the carriage accident—develops this motif; instead of circling and passing, the two carriages turn into each other and collide. The consummation of their relationship is, as often in Ophuls’s cinema, a waltz. At a succession of balls, the couple dances together—now spinning around each other, in unison—and the camera follows, its movements pivoting around their action, rather than just Donati’s.
The final scene in the sequence of dances—the band leaving, as the couple, the last at the ball, continue dancing—gains much of its power from what has occurred before it—in terms of narrative events, obviously, but also and more subtly in terms of how we’ve seen the couple. By inverting the closing circular motif of the immediately preceding scenes, Ophuls foreshadows the couple’s inevitable separation. The camera’s movements are no longer centered on the couple. Instead, the shot begins following the violinist, who exits along the edge of the dance floor, and only catches Donati and Madame de in the mirrors on the wall. As he leaves, the camera moves in toward the couple, but then breaks away, following a servant, who emerges from the background opposite the movement of the couple, to extinguish the lights. The shot ends when the camera, retracing its earlier path, returns to the bandstand and is blacked out by the harp cover. Determined by the movements of the outside world, rather than pivoting around the couple, the camera prepares us for the couple’s parting on a graphic level, complementing the causal reason provided through dialogue (her husband is returning) and, if one registers the repetition and variation in staging, framing, and movement, deepening the scene’s emotional resonance.
Critics have attributed definite thematic concerns to Ophuls’s lengthy tracking shots (Andrew Sarris: “There is no escape from the trap of time… This is the ultimate meaning of Ophulsian camera movement: time has no stop”), but we needn’t divine a philosophy from the device in order to appreciate what Ophuls achieves. On a basic level—that is, before expressing an abstract theme—Ophuls uses his camera to relay story information, and the long take, as used above, does so efficiently, while simultaneously commenting on the action and providing his actors continuous time and space in which to interact with one another—an aspect I haven’t touched upon but is evident in the great performances of the three leads. If Ophuls’s shots don’t “feel” long in comparison to those of Gus van Sant, it is not to the detriment of Ophuls’s status as a master of the long take. Rather, we should admire Ophuls all the more for creating dense, varied, and evocative compositions that can sustain themselves for minutes longer than those of most narrative filmmakers today, who rarely dare to withhold a close-up for more than a handful of seconds.
Virtually all of what we attribute to Ophuls applies to Mizoguchi as well, although the weighty themes he’s freighted with are grander still (his long take is, according to various accounts, the repository of the whole Japanese aesthetic tradition, from antiquity through the early twentieth century). We may also appreciate his work at a simpler level. Although his preferred tool is not the tracking camera but the crane (as seen in Sansho’s unforgettable final shot, among the finest in film), Mizoguchi also utilizes repetition and variation in conjunction with the long take to create narrative effects. Sansho’s screenplay is adapted from an 11th century folktale, to which Mizoguchi added the Zuchio’s temporary deviation from his father’s ideals, expanded the importance of the mother’s song, and brought his famed talent for female character—to such an extent that the ideals of the father are not nearly as tangible a presence as the specter of the absent mother. These elements contribute greatly to an otherwise schematic narrative (two opposing fathers, hero quest, etc.), but even when working with the most formulaic of stories, Mizoguchi’s style elevates his work to the level of great art.
Anyone with an even rudimentary grasp of narrative conventions knows that Zuchio will overcome his temptation to ingratiate himself with the brutal Sanhso and take up his father’s proto-liberal value system, and this allows Mizoguchi to play the scene obliquely. Zuchio and his sister, Anju, are ordered by Sansho to dump dying woman in the forest; Anju convinces Zuchio to help to her construct a shelter for the woman. Their actions—breaking tree branches, cutting grass—are a repetition of the idyll with their mother immediately before the family is separated; this repetition cues us to expect a transformation, but rather than showing us how Zuchio’s character changes clearly, Mizoguchi places him at the bottom left of the frame, where he cuts grass. Anju hears her mother calling them and moves to the back of the frame, looking into the distance; Zuchio, either hearing the same or simply wondering what his sister is doing, turns fully away from the camera.
Perversely, Mizoguchi stages his actors so that they are turned away from the camera at a moment of great emotional importance, forbidding the viewer knowledge of Anju’s and Zuchio’s feelings or the probable source—real or imagined? If so, by whom?—of the mother’s call. That is, until the sound stops and Anju turns, defeated, and moves to the right of the frame; however, the camera follows her and excludes Zuchio, such that we can’t see what he makes of this. Suddenly, Mizoguchi cuts to Zuchio, just as he begins to sob. The long take distracts us with Anju’s reaction to her mother’s call and withholds Zuchio’s emotional state until his moment of decision. As a result, his change is both surprising—despite the fact we know it’s coming—and mysterious—as we do not know precisely how he has been brought to this moment. Mizoguchi’s long take, then, can create a range of effects—suspense, surprise, ambiguity—where little may exist in the scene as written.
These two examples are admittedly slight and far from exhaustive of the expressive possibilities of either’s long take. Both Mizoguchi and Ophuls are sometimes described as “stylists,” and, if this label assumes style is a pleasing aesthetic arrangement, separable from “content,” we can dismiss it; Mizoguchi’s and Ophuls’s films are deeper and more fascinating artworks because of how their style interacts with the material, the unfolding narrative. Film festival long takes—whether admired for their sheer duration (which such shots announce) or for their dedication to Bazinian ontological properties of the art (an embellishment of the former)—are no substitute for the artistry of Ophuls and Mizoguchi. Theirs is an art in which subtle effects of staging and movement enrich the experience of narrative—permitting multiple plotlines to flourish simultaneously, allowing a great range of associations, maintaining an absorbing ambiguity, providing characters a world to inhabit, move through, and encounter one another in. Relative to the expansiveness and plenitude of Sansho the Bailiff and Madame de…, even Hollywood’s most epic of canvases—the Lord of the Rings series, say—feel like small, crude sketches.

Much of this note was inspired by a fine discussion on the long take hosted at girish’s blog. For further reading, see Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging by David Bordwell.

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