Ever and anon the snow fell, penetrating so profoundly into the depths of her enraptured being that she had no room in her for any other sensation than that of dying of cold, and being buried beneath the adorable kisses of the snow.
– Remy de Gourmont, “Danaette”1
At one of the many moments of crisis in Sans lendemain (There’s No Tomorrow, 1939), the heroine, Evelyn (Edwige Feuillère) – a nude dancer, single mother and gangster’s widow – takes an unauthorised break from the sleazy nightclub where she works to have a heart-to-heart talk with her close but entirely platonic male friend. On her way to work that night, Evelyn has had a chance encounter with a former lover she has not seen for many years. This man, Georges (George Rigaud), has no idea what seedy depths she has sunk to; he imagines she is a lady of wealth, class and distinction. To further complicate her life, he has invited himself to dinner the following night. In an alley behind the nightclub, Evelyn is begging her friend, Henri (Paul Azaïs), to help her out of this jam. What she needs is money – a lot of it, and fast – so that, for one night only, she can impersonate her one-time lover’s glittering illusion of who she is.
Suddenly, the nightclub’s vulgar proprietor shouts at them through the window: “Where the hell do you think you are? At the movies?” As in any film directed by Max Ophuls, the answer to this question is not at all clear-cut. Like the lovers on an illusory train journey through artificial landscapes in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) or the courtesan acting out her life story as a spectacle in a circus tent in Lola Montès (1955), the heroine in Sans lendemain is constantly “at the movies” – not least when she imagines she is living her actual life. The last film but one that Ophuls made in France prior to World War II – and his first unqualified box-office success since he made his name with Liebelei in 1933 – Sans lendemain is about the deliberate and painstaking manufacture of an illusion. Evelyn creates and maintains it not simply in defiance of real life but, ultimately, at the expense of life itself.
It is ironic that critics who revere the later Ophuls films – whether his Hollywood melodramas of the late ’40s or his more consciously ‘artistic’ French ones of the early ’50s – have seldom thought very highly of Sans lendemain. This overall sense of condescension is best summed up by Roy Armes, who writes of his ’30s work:
The triteness of the narrative is generally enlivened by Ophuls’s sense of decorative poetry and mastery of his fragile atmosphere, but in a sense these films are merely the forerunners of a style which, with growing technical virtuosity and after an interlude in Hollywood, will reach its full flourishing some fifteen years later, once more in France.2
Critically, it makes little sense to complain about “the triteness of the narrative” in a melodrama – a genre founded on a set of well-worn and widely accepted conventions. It is like complaining that the heroine in an Italian bel canto opera tends to have a Mad Scene somewhere towards the end of the last act. What counts in a melodrama are not the conventions but the stylistic and visual flair with which those coventions are recycled. In its visual style, Sans lendemain is as rich and complex as Ophuls’ Hollywood films, and barely less accomplished than his late French masterworks.
Visually, it is very much a film of two halves. The lurid night-time world of Paris in the ’30s is conveyed in the deep shadows that characterised German Expressionism and became, in the following decade, the style of Hollywood film noir. Susan M White has noted the kinship of Sans lendemain with the most consciously noir of Ophuls’s American films, The Reckless Moment (1949). Both focus on beleaguered mothers and their struggle to maintain an illusion of domestic respectability against impossible odds. White points out how “both women are forced to lose their loves for the sake of debts they cannot pay.”3 In the earlier work, in contrast to the sleazy milieu of the main story, is Evelyn’s memory (seen in flashbacks) of meeting her lover ten years before at a ski resort in Canada. With their dazzling purity and whiteness, the snow-covered mountains constitute both a ‘lost paradise’ and an alternative visual world.
They are echoed in the all-white decor of the swank apartment Evelyn rents as a setting for her masquerade, and they are parodied cruelly in the white interior of La Sirène, the nightclub where she parades – naked under a white fur cloak – as the Spirit of Winter. Edwige Feuillère, the reigning ice queen of French cinema in the ’30s and ’40s, becomes at once the tragic Lady of the Camellias (a role she played to great acclaim on the stage) and the immortally alluring Snow Queen of Hans Christian Andersen. In her dreams, perhaps, she is the wealthy and beautiful adulteress of Rémy de Gourmont’s story ‘Danaette’ – who is erotically and fatally seduced by the falling snow. The poetry of Sans lendemain lies in the interplay of snow and shadows, light and dark. As Evelyn and her lover drive back to Paris from a stolen idyll in the country, among the snows, he takes his hand off the wheel and clutches hers. His hand is naked; its skin glows a pale white. Hers is encased in a sleek and expensive black kid glove.
For a moment, their two hands are twined together, white and black. Gazing at them, we can breathe in what Feuillère called “that perfume of gentle despair.”4 This is the scent of Sans lendemain and, ultimately, of any film by Max Ophuls.
• • •
Sans lendemain (1939 France 82 mins)
Prod. Co: Films Osso, Ciné-Alliance Prod: Gregor Rabinovitch Prod. Mgr: Oscar Dancigers Dir: Max Ophuls Scr: Hans Wilhelm, Hans Jacobi, André Paul Antoine Phot: Eugen Schüfftan, Paul Portier Mus: Allan Gray Ed: Bernard Séjourné, Jean Sacha Art Dir: Eugène Lourié Prod. Des: Max Douy
Cast: Edwige Feuillère, George Rigaud, Daniel Lecourtois, Paul Azaïs, Michel François, Mady Berry, Jane Marken
- Remy de Gourmont, “Danaette,” in The Angels of Perversity, Francis Amery trans. (London: Dedalus, 1992), p. 111. ↩
- Roy Armes, French Cinema, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1985), p. 89. ↩
- Susan M. White, The Cinema of Max Ophuls – Magisterial Vision and the Figure of Woman, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 101. ↩
- Colin Crisp, French Cinema – A Critical Filmography, Volume I (1929-1939), (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2015), p. 284. ↩