With All Our Yesterdays Lighting The Way



The camera doesn’t so much move as waltz along with its characters in the cinema of Max Ophüls, and similarly the geopolitical forces that coincided with and bore influence on the inescapably international flavor of his films twist and whirl through continuous passage aboard boat or on train from or to ports and stations unknown. From his native Germany to various check-points Continental and European – Holland, Italy, and France – on to Hollywood, and finally back to France, the sweep and breadth of his intoxicating movie journeying from 1931 to his untimely death in 1957 encompassed at least five languages and a variety of production methods over some twenty films, but Ophüls as the common factor between them denotes a grand romantic vision dancing elegantly with a certain wistful ephemerality.

Finding himself in France in 1939, on the eve of the Nazi Occupation, and six years after he had been forced to flee Germany, Ophüls’ There’s No Tomorrow sums up in its title a possibly personal response to all this globe-hopping with a somewhat foreboding yet still graceful character in its original French – Sans lendemain; literally, “short-lived” – that both celebrates and mourns uncertainty with a brave yet conscious unconcern. In the story of a Parisian nightclub performer in dire circumstances, reunited with a former lover after many years, this cosmopolitan pose finds tragic yet noble expression in sustaining the past through a troubling present. As for the future? Curious cinephiles and Max Ophüls devotees in particular are referred to Kino Classics’ recent Blu-ray reissue of this previously underseen tragic romance, mixing the glamorous and the seedy in unusually timely fashion for this equally strong visual transfer, to view for themselves.

As the film opens, Evelyn “Babs” Morin (Edwidge Feuillère) is the headliner of a sumptuous yet sleazy, topless(!) cabaret and nightclub in a frequented but hardly reputable section of Paris. Supporting herself and young son Pierre (Michel François), Evelyn also uses her commercial connections from her twilight-into-evening stage-performances for additional sex-work past midnight at various higher-end hotels surrounding the area. Encountering a former lover from a decade before one evening, a French-Canadian businessman named Georges Brandon (Georges Rigaud), we gradually learn through flashback the very different circumstances of Evelyn’s life before tragically settling in the demi-monde; particularly as a society woman disgraced by her late husband’s unscrupulous business dealings and eventual suicide.

Resolving for personal reasons of pride, wounded nobility, and of course romance, Evelyn recruits the assistance of her steadfast friend and stage co-performer Henri (Paul Azaïs) in first selecting a luxury apartment to rent in order to maintain the illusion of her former lifestyle in the eyes of her still devoted gentleman of fancy, and next securing a high-interest loan to finance the romantic subterfuge through a much more dangerous connection in local gangster Paul Mazaraud (Georges Lannes). As the difficult stakes increase, and as the rekindled romance continues to blossom, Evelyn must ultimately make momentous decisions for herself, her son, and refound love, with a keen awareness of the title sentiment in mind.

With that cryptic allusion to the film’s haunting conclusion, ending on a note of ambiguity as to Evelyn’s fate, the darker but hardly definite path to romantic and familial salvation comes perhaps unsurprisingly at a cost too high to be met with a conventionally happy story-denouement. In viewing, one is subtly drawn to the Evelyn figure through the glittering veil of night or behind a heavy patch of street-fog, the camera drifting, floating, and sweeping elegantly alongside in moving register of her feigned happiness and concealed pain. Finding poetry and beauty even in darkness, There’s No Tomorrow leaves little room for doubt by the end that the English translation is true, while equally upholding the more optimistic meaning of the French.

Proto-noir in its conception, style, and thematics, Evelyn’s past and present are held in screen-balance against each other, the happiness and fulfillment of her equal parts romantic and tragic past in Canada informing and directing her present Parisian actions of deception, self-sacrifice, and indomitable strength towards sustaining her lover, her son, and her relationship with both. Time is simultaneously the great enemy and steadfast ally here, robbing Evelyn of everything she holds dear while also giving/gifting her opportunity to perform a purely selfless act on a temporally diminishing stage. And whose action may have a positively altering effect on those closest to her, but also one leaving poor Henri, her most faithful friend, calling her name unanswered through the night.

From the bright ski slopes of Montreal to the shrouded midnight reservoirs of Paris, Max Ophüls’ roving camera – mounted and constructed on seemingly endlessly-laid dolly-tracks – registers both levels, past and present, light and darkness, in its illumination of the darker corners of the heart. Or more accurately, the dimming through its winding corridors, its spatial and temporal geography no closer to being fully perceived than more distantly felt. Like Evelyn, we may have used up all our yesterdays in the living of them, but our tomorrows need be no more short-lived than our fuller – and fullest – experience of the present.

And it’s on that level that There’s No Tomorrow impresses most, the glowing embrace of the lovers’ last meeting, or the young son rushing to his mother’s aid; both later departing by train and on to a ship, and on towards hopefully brighter days, standing together in sharp(er) relief to the darkness just behind. While my initial reaction to There’s No Tomorrow was poor, concerned mainly with technical details, and possibly overshadowed by a dismissive preconception or expectation of yet another “fallen woman” story, the appropriately elegant commentary included with Kino Classics’ Blu-ray from film historian Adrian Martin definitely helped to see the complexities and wider context of Max Ophüls’ romantic, cosmopolitan vision. Martin convincingly argues that Evelyn’s response is in keeping with Ophüls’ own, especially regarding the question of time, There’s No Tomorrow structured around flashbacks which make those emotional passages in the film’s “present” stand out, stretching across distant countries and through the fallen years to find ultimate meaning and fulfillment in the current moment.

Ophüls, following the Nazi Occupation, and after six years of waiting in Hollywood, there making four satisfying movies despite the artistic odds against him, ultimately returned to France and made four of the most elegant, witty, romantic, devastating, wise, wistful, and beautiful films ever made, including La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), The earrings of Madame de… (1953), and Lola Montès (1955). Whatever he learned along his eventful life’s uncertain course are in those four films, but There’s No Tomorrow shows his camera and characters waltzing no less gracefully through a dark and difficult world.

Images are used only as a reference to the film and do not reflect the image quality of Kino Classics’ Blu-ray.