Monday, May 21, 2007

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)

a.k.a. Madame de...

Directed by: Max Ophuls
Written by: Marcel Archard, Max Ophuls, Annete
Starring: Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio De Sica

Black & White, 105 minutes, French

Grade: A+

Max Ophuls' The Earrings of Madame de... is one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time. Andrew Sarris, who used Ophuls as the basis for his "auteur theory," often referred to it as the greatest film of all time, and Dave Kehr went one better by calling it "one of the most beautiful things ever created by human hands." It was in the shadow of such high praise that I watched this film, and, surprisingly, I wasn't disappointed in the least. This is a beautiful, multi-layered, and fascinating motion picture that can easily stand with the greats.

The reason for the films success is quite simple: Ophuls was a masterful filmmaker. Practically unknown to the general public, but loved by critics, Ophuls was a bit like The Velvet Underground of cinema. Not everybody has heard of him, but those who have witnessed his work were extremely effected by it. After years of reading his praises and searching for his films (only one of his films, Lola Montes, has been released on DVD, and it's now out of print), I finally found a copy of Madame de... on VHS. The transfer was nothing short of horrible, and the subtitling was even worse, but Ophuls' talent was evident from the first frame.

In 19th century Vienna, we see the Comtesse Louise de... (Danielle Darrieux), whose last name is never given to suggest that she is practically interchangeable with any other female member of the priviliged class, frantically tearing through her bedroom, looking for something she can sell to help pay off her debts. She likes her necklaces, and she sure as hell isn't going to give up her furs, so she settles on a pair of diamond earrings that were a wedding present from her husband, General Andre de...(Charles Boyer). The romance has left their marriage, the nostalgia has faded, and she never really liked the earrings to begin with. At the pawnshop the broker is stunned to see a pair of earrings that he had sold to Andre years before, in happier times.

Later that night at the opera, Louise makes a big spectacle about her missing earrings. Her husband, who has no knowledge of her financial troubles, goes to the trouble of having an article put in the newspaper about the missing jewelry. The pawnbroker sees this and automatically brings the earrings back to Andre. The General is visibly upset, yet he does not confront Louise about it, instead he prefers to subtly ask her questions about them, and the audience discovers that Louise is a compulsive liar. The General eventually gives the earrings to his mistress, who loses them at a roulette table in Constantinople. Eventually they end up in the hands of Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica), who has just ran into the woman of his dreams, a woman that happens to be the Comtesse Louise. From this point on, Ophuls provides us with a love triangle whose actions and ramifications are surprisingly touching.

Ophuls' biggest claim to fame is the way he handles his camera. He was a master of the mobile camera, and Madame de... has some of the most amazing tracking shots put on film. His work may have inspired later masters, such as Kubrick, Scorsese, and Bertolucci, but unlike those directors, Ophuls' style is not there to simply dazzle us, it has a purpose. The fluidity is natural and integral to the plot, as if the story was meant to be filmed this way, and only this particular way.

Aside from these tracking shots, Ophuls peppers his film visual flourishes. In one scene we see a letter torn to shreds and thrown out the window of a moving train, the floating paper quickly turns into falling snow, and we are now in winter. The most stunning accomplishment in the film, however, is the ballroom sequence. Ophuls shows us Donati and Louise spinning around on the dance floor. The camera circles the two of them, and without missing a beat we see their clothes have changed and an entire courtship plays out in a matter of minutes without ever leaving the dance floor, establishing Ophuls as the most economical of filmmakers.

The performances in Madame de... are simply perfection. Darrieux brings the right amount of naivete and elegance to a role that would falter in lesser hands. Boyer is assertive and demanding as Andre, and De Sica, the biggest surprise here, proves that he can act as well as he can direct, and that, my friends, is quite an accomplishment. His Baron is an innocent, hopelessly in love with an impossible woman. Other actors would exploit the ignorance in the character, but De Sica is solid in his sincerity, and we buy into every bit of it.

The General tells his wife that their relationship is "superficially superficial," and so it is, but Ophuls, through all the beautiful costumes and production design, finds a deeper truth in his material. We see the vanity, shallowness, and greed of the upper class, but, nonetheless, we care about these individuals. Madame de... does not deserve the attention of Andre, and she certainly doesn't warrant the fuss made by Donati, but we want a happy ending. The fact that Ophuls refuses to give us that satisfaction proves that he is not a romantic, he is a cynic, plain and simple.

As I mentioned earlier, Ophuls' films are hard to find. Madame de... has just been restored and is being shown in art houses across the country. Hopefully this will revive the recognition that it once received, and we will see some of his releases hit the DVD market. Personally, I've been searching in vain for a copy of his Letter from an Unknown Woman from 1948, mostly because I harbor a secret crush on Joan Fontaine, but a world class filmmaker with such immense talent demands an audience. This is a man whose reputation ranks him alongside the likes of Welles, Hitchcock, and Bergman. If you are lucky enough to find any of his films, I cannot urge you enough to spend the money and the time. Such talent is rare, and it must be cherished.


H. Stewart said...

That ballroom sequence was just magnificent!

Clayton L. White said...

Yeah, it really was. Reminded me of Magnificent Ambersons, but better!