La Signora di Tutti Review
The only Italian film directed by Max Ophuls, La signora di tutti should nonetheless feel somewhat familiar to those acquainted with his later work such as The Earrings of Madame de... and Lola Montes. At the film's center is a woman and the various men her beauty has enthralled. It is melodrama underlined in grim desperation, with tragic results. The virtuoso camera work, which isn't above being showy but also never strays from the elegance of movement Ophuls is so often associated with, is all the more impressive considering the picture is from 1934. La signora di tutti also gives its star Isa Miranda a wonderful showcase, both in terms of acting that ranges from subdued with sadness to almost operatic and as a way of letting the world discover one of the great faces of the era.
Miranda plays movie star Gaby Doriot. Revealing words about the character are contained in a song she's recorded that shares its name with the title of Ophuls' film and translates into English as "Everybody's Lady." The lyrics establish Gaby as a lonely figure undone by fame and loved by everyone yet no one. This premise itself reeks of melodrama's less appealing possibilities. A flashback structure, quite the rarity at this time, is then unveiled - with a screen of instructive text no less - following Gaby's attempted suicide. At this point, the actress seems to still be peaking and no one can fathom why she'd want to end her life. Ophuls and cinematographer Ubaldo Arata precede the flashback with a terrifically claustrophobic shot of a mask lowering onto Gaby's face as she lies on the operating table. Such choices by Ophuls and Arata ultimately make the film for those looking for something beyond the melodramatic roots.
The flashback initially takes us to Gaby, using her given name of Gabriella Murge, while at school. Miranda, with her prominent features, isn't entirely believable as a school girl here but I suppose it matters little. The reason for the stop on this point in the time line is to establish the character's remarkable, and you could easily say tragic, influence on men. One of her teachers has committed suicide, apparently as a result of his obsession with Gaby. This taints her reputation and place in society, and her father quickly demands that she remain at home. Later on, Gaby and her sister Anna get invited to a dance at the house of a prominent young man named Roberto Nanni (Friedrich Benfer). This eventually leads to our heroine caring for the wheelchair-bound mother of Roberto, Alma (Tatyana Pavlova), and becoming involved romantically with patriarch Leonardo (Memo Benassi). Narratively, it's this strand that occupies the majority of the film and most heavily weighs over it.
Sprinkled throughout the picture are rather quiet moments of interest that, like the camera movements, elevate it above being a story limited to the effects of shattered and troubled love. Economic dissolves stand out from a technical perspective but make an otherwise mild impact. More notable is a scene like the spinning record playing "La signora di tutti" and how that juxtaposes with the later knowledge that music in general comes to haunt Gaby, acting as a reminder of the climactic point of trauma in the film. Ophuls' use of the staircase is another clear way of establishing the psychological turmoil that entangles Gaby. The structure comes to symbolize something, both actual and emotional, that she will not be able to overcome. There are also a couple of nice jabs at the media. One comes when a reporter prefers to paint the now-famous actress' past as warm and cheery despite her telling him (and, by extension, us) all of the sad details. Then, at the very end of the picture, posters of her are being printed one after another for promotional use, and a man yells for it all to halt. One poster is left stuck in the machinery, coldly and with little care as to the circumstances behind the stoppage.
La signora di tutti can seem like, and perhaps is, quite a downbeat viewing experience. Certainly the more obvious themes involve loneliness and a pervading sense of unhappiness. Gaby's influence on those around her is generally shown to be negative. The contrast comes in Roberto, the one man Gaby actually coveted. He shows some hint of regret but mostly a satisfaction with his current situation, which includes marriage and fatherhood. In turn, though, his necessary rejection of her seems to lead Gaby toward her downward spiral. She's a fragile figure and one whose various neuroses are explored in depth by the film. Part of what saves it from becoming too morose or even too hysterical at times is, again, the camera work. It spins smoothly, moves through walls, and, in one scene, captures the parallel movements of a boat containing Gaby and the car with Leonardo, the two vehicles separated by a wall of foliage. The way the camera moves in this film is a daring thing of beauty.
The Masters of Cinema Series puts out an increasingly rare DVD-only release of La signora di tutti on a R0 disc. It's the milestone spine number 100 from MoC. A not quite flattering picture of Isa Miranda occupies much of the cover art (which is derived from original promotional materials). The disc is dual-layered and PAL.
The 1.37:1 image absolutely looks splendid enough to have merited a Blu-ray release. Maybe the thinking was that the film was too obscure for that more costly treatment. Still, you're not likely to find very many movies from 1934 looking this strong on DVD. The elements would appear to be ideal, and the result is a transfer that shows an impressive level of detail of sharpness. Contrast too exceeds normal expectations and damage is limited to just a few very light scratches and some mild debris near the edge of the round frame. In short, the progressive transfer is marvelous. I'm aware of a similar edition of this film from Italy that looks about the same but it's still a real gift to have this now available in the UK market (and for those dedicated US importers).
A Dolby Digital 2.0 track is in the original Italian. It's not quite up to the lofty standards set up by the visual quality of the disc but it nonetheless sounds undisturbed. The audio maintains a pleasant volume level and is not deterred by an abundance of distractions such as pops or hisses. Unlike most Italian features, La signora di tutti's audio was recorded live and not dubbed. English subtitles are provided and optional. They are white in color.
"So Alone..." (29:35), a visual essay by Tag Gallagher, runs nearly half an hour and is the only supplement on the disc. In the video piece, Gallagher speaks about Ophuls and goes on to more or less dissect the film, or at least the aspects he finds interesting. It's like experiencing an audio commentary without the lulls and in a third of the time. If you've watched and listened to similar essays by Gallagher then you already know he's a pro and does this type of thing incredibly well.
The booklet included with the release runs 44 pages. It has a 2010 essay written by Luc Moullet and translated from French into English by Craig Keller. Moullet's appreciation is loaded with references to other films, a practice I do not find to be endearing. It's also, perhaps as a result of that urge to cite a catalog of pictures Moullet is familiar with, somewhat lean on discussion of what makes La signora di tutti worth devoting 11 pages of writing to. Beyond Moullet's piece, there's a 1945 "Testimonial" by Isa Miranda that is rather harsh on Ophuls. It concludes by claiming that, without being able to attain a character's states of mind, "being an actress with directors like Ophuls would be the same as spending two months in a torture chamber." Later interviews, conducted in 1977, show a mellowed Miranda. These comments, along with some from Ophuls' 1959 autobiography, make up "An Ophuls Dossier" that consists of 9 pages of text.