In spanning eight decades, Marcel Ophuls’ filmed autobiography “Ain’t Misbehavin’” incorporates a wide array of approaches: nostalgia-filled interviews with celebrated contemporaries, whimsical excerpts from Hollywood films, samplings from his own and his father’s oeuvres, and jaunts to the sites of past traumas and triumphs. Ophuls obviously greatly relishes his role as cosmopolitan raconteur, but his spontaneous delivery can feel over-rehearsed, his focus erratic. Film buffs will doubtless appreciate his imaginative use of free-associative film clips and anecdotes about Preston Sturges, Marlene Dietrich and Francois Truffaut, but “Misbehavin’” ultimately seems too patchy to resonate with wider audiences.
Ophuls’ remembrance of his early life offers a nearly miraculous confluence of personal, cinematic and world history. As the son of famed German-Jewish director Max Ophuls, who left Germany for France and from there escaped to Hollywood, young Marcel found himself at the center of international film production as well as the Holocaust, which he would so tellingly chronicle in “The Sorrow and the Pity” and “Hotel Terminus.” When leaving Germany in 1933 at age 5, he remembers driving past a cinema showing “Leibelei,” with his father’s name in large letters. Later, in France fleeing the Nazis, he recalls the family holing up in a hotel opposite a huge poster for “Jud Suss.”
Sometimes his chosen film clips function as straightforward, if playful, illustrations. A scene of Julie Andrews in “Victor/Victoria,” fainting from hunger in front of a restaurant window while watching a fat man stuff his face with cream puffs, accompanies Ophuls’ story of his parents’ dislike for Zurich and its inhabitants’ greedy gourmands. Sometimes the excerpts read more ambivalently. Movie scenes of imminent ocean voyages, heralding Ophuls’ family’s last-minute escape from France, include boat shots from “Pepe le Moko,” “Amarcord” and the director’s own comedy “Banana Peel.” In addition, the film freely references Marx Brothers romps, from Groucho serenading Thelma Todd in a canoe in “Horse Feathers” to Chico, Groucho and Harpo clearing U.S. customs with absurd impersonations of Maurice Chevalier in “Monkey Business.”
Mention of Max Ophuls’ penchant for appearing nude on their California balcony, greeting the morning with a quote from “In Which We Serve,” logically precedes a clip from the celluloid original. But the son’s stories about his father, while amusing, tend toward the anecdotal; his four-hour tribute “Max par Marcel” (2009) proved more revelatory. Conversations with Jeanne Moreau (star of “Banana Peel”), Costa-Gavras (once an assistant to the director) and veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman re-establish Marcel Ophuls within the context of his own career. Yet even though his accounts of his early, largely unsuccessful forays into fiction filmmaking are succinct and easy to follow, his allusions to the later documentaries that made him famous seem cryptic and disjointed.
A short montage of negative reactions by varied French writers and critics to his masterpiece, “The Sorrow and the Pity,” hardly does justice to the furor the film created in detailing the Vichy government’s widespread collusion with the Nazis, forever destroying the French (and Hollywood) image of an occupied France united in heroic resistance. Scattershot references to “The Memory of Justice,” “A Sense of Loss” and “The Troubles I’ve Seen” get lost amid letters from Woody Allen and clips of President Obama, Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller and Cyd Charisse (whose white dress and long limbs in the park dance from “Bandwagon” recall the legs of Ophuls’ wife, Regine, and Albert Camus’ silent admiration of them).
Though autobiography, by its very nature, tilts toward the egocentric, Ophuls almost comes across like a narcissistic intruder in his own life story; his chosen imagery never reverts back to him without a struggle. The director fearlessly documented some of the most horrendously unforgettable periods in human history and surely deserves a documentary of his own. But it might have been more interesting, or at least more coherent, if somebody else directed it.