One Night Only: ‘Sans lendeman’, Max Ophüls’s lost vision of a fallen France, at MoMA

sans lendemain

Sans Lendemain (1940)
Directed by Max Ophüls
September 28, 7pm at MoMA

Sans Lendemain—that is, “No Tomorrow”—is Max Ophüls’s unsung marvel, and the last film he made before World War II. Edwige Feuillére—brilliant in his elegantly didactic From Mayerling to Sarajevo—plays Evelyne, the ostracized widow of a gangster compelled to work in Montmartre as a topless dancer to send her son Pierre to boarding school. When Evelyne’s long-estranged lover Georges materializes from Canada, she resolves to revitalize their romance, which she had ended for his safety, and hide her inescapably tawdry circumstances during his fleeting three-day stay. “I feel like my profession is written on my face,” she says. She wants partly to claim a moment for herself but ultimately to secure Pierre a decent future with Georges.

Emotionally, the movie combines existential dread and jaunty artifice. Visually, it’s a fluid blend of confined intimacy and Parisian street splendor, shot with Ophüls’s signature technical virtuosity and verve, and in particular a noirish use of light and shadow. The film’s arduous plot contrivances and casual nudity—including that of a pre-adolescent boy—may explain its erstwhile marginalization, but Feuillére’s incomparable poise, beauty, subtlety, and expressiveness overwhelm any doubts about its genuineness and gravitas. As the story draws to a close, Evelyne’s face captures at once her relief for her child and the tragedy of her own life, gazing towards a future that will not include her.

The specter of war is unmentioned, but Ophüls—a German Jew who fled the Nazi regime, became a French citizen, and left occupied France for America—would have been acutely aware that the Wehrmacht was starting to spread through Europe. While Sans Lendemain may be foremost a melodrama about life’s inequities, it also presages the fallen France of refugees, schemers, and resistors, resigned to a diminished and benighted world, that set the stage for the redemptive Casablanca.

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