Claude Chabrol's Ophlia came out in the middle of a particularly fertile period in the French New Wave pioneer early career. Between 1958, the year his first feature was released, and 1963 he churned out eight features and one short film while also giving substantial aid to several of his New Wave peers (he helped secure financing for several of Jacques Rivette's and Eric Rohmer's early films). Thus, if Ophlia is one of his lesser efforts, one might appeal to creative exhaustion to account for its somewhat stiff nature and less than compelling dramatics, although Chabrol didn't rest for long, as he directed another nine features and two shorts before the end of the 1960s.
As the title suggests, Ophlia is a modern-day riff on Shakespeare's Hamlet, although the title is rather curious and seemingly random since Chabrol and his co-screenwriters Paul Ggauff and Martial Matthieu don't put any added emphasis on the Ophlia character as, say, Tom Stoppard did to two minor characters in his 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Instead, the central character is the Hamlet figure, who is here reimagined as Yvan Lesurf (Andr Jocelyn), a privileged and somewhat unstable young man who comes to believe that his father, who we see being buried in the film's opening scene, was killed by his mother, Claudia (Alida Valli), and his uncle, Adrien (Claude Cerval), who have since married. In essence, Yvan becomes obsessed with the Hamlet narrative, which he thinks is playing out in his own life. So, he follows Shakespeare's play and concocts a scheme to confront his mother and step-father with their crime by staging it in fiction. This being the 20th century and a Chabrol film, Yvan does not put on a play as Hamlet did, but rather films a movie called The Mousetrap starring his only friend, Sparkos (Jean-Louis Maury); Ginette (Liliane Dreyfus), a dim barmaid; and a jovial gravedigger he randomly meets (Sacha Briquet). His Hamlet obsession also requires an Ophlia figure, and he tries to transform his girlfriend Lucie (Juliette Mayniel), the daughter of his family's groundskeeper, Andre (Robert Burnier), into the tragic figure for no other reason than the fact that such a character exists in Shakespeare's play.
And therein lies one of the film's central problems, namely that the grafting of the Bard's tragedy onto the modern narrative framework is often awkward, if not unwieldly. The idea is potentially good, and at times Chabrol, whose cinematic expertise lay in Hitchockian thrillers and mysteries, plays with the dynamics in ways that suggest a genuinely discomfiting examination of guilt and obsession lies somewhere inside the finished film. Like Hamlet, Yvan must feign madness as part of the ploy, but he seems so unstable from the outset that his pretending to be deranged feels like little more than a vague extension of who he is already. There are some darkly comical scenes in which Yvan gets under his seething uncle's skin, and Chabrol also makes some bold visual choices, such as showing Yvan's father's funeral from inside the casket. Yet, despite the effectively moody cinematography by Jacques Rabier and Jean Rabier (the latter of whom was a regular collaborator of Chabrol's and also shot Agns Varda's Cleo From 5 to 7 and Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), which makes great use of the skeletal, wintry French countryside, Ophlia never really catches on, which renders it a particularly dim shadow of the great work off of which it is playing.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Olive Films
Overall Rating: (2)
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