Madame de... Review

The first part of this review is revised and updated from my 2006 review of the Second Sight DVD for this site, which can be read here.

Paris, the early twentieth century. Louise (Danielle Darrieux) sells some expensive earrings, a wedding present from her husband André (Charles Boyer), to pay off a debt. Unable to tell her husband , an army general, she pretends to have lost them in a theatre. Unfortunately for her, André finds out the truth, but does not tell her he knows what she had done. He buys the earrings back from the jeweller and gives them to his mistress, Lola (Lia di Leo), who is leaving for Constantinople. There she sells them to finance her gambling and they are bought by an Italian diplomat, Baron Donati (Vittorio de Sica), who back in Paris meets Louise…

For Stanley Kubrick, Max Ophüls's camera could float through walls. Kubrick was one of the director's many admirers, and it's not hard to see the influence in Kubrick's work of Ophüls's frequently mobile camera, frequently tracking, dollying, panning and tilting, often in lengthily choreographed sequence shots. There are just 364 shots in this film. These sequence shots are present in his earliest films, but appear more and more as his style develops. Advances in cinema technology may have had an effect. There's a common assumption that the arrival of sound cinema temporarily reduced the power of cinema as a visual medium, with the demands of sound recording on set causing cameras to be anchored to the spot or positioned behind glass. That isn't wholly true, and Ophüls wasn't the only filmmaker determined to keep the camera on the move. If he had lived and continued to work to his late seventies, you wonder what he would have done with a Steadicam. That's not to say that he couldn't keep the camera still if he needed to: more than once he will emphasise the distance between his characters by cutting back and forth. But his origins were in the theatre, a medium which depends on continuity of staging and performance, and he carried that over into his film career.

For much of his career, Ophüls, born in Saarbrücken in the then German Empire in 1902, was overlooked as a maker of light comedies and women's pictures (and many of them do centre on women, for which he shows considerable empathy), highly designed and ornate fripperies set in an idealised past – Vienna, or in the case of Madame de... the French Belle Epoque from around the time of his birth – an examples of style over content, especially using that mobile camera. But, as with fellow German émigré Douglas Sirk, also a specialist in melodramas and “women's pictures”, his critical reputation has grown considerably over the years, often due to the influence of feminist critics, to the point where he is regarded as one of the great directors of the mid twentieth century. For influential critic and American proponent of the auteur theory Andrew Sarris, Madame de... was “the most perfect film ever made”. Each of his last seven films has its champions. Myself, I'll go for Letter from an Unknown Woman, a contender for my personal top ten. Ophüls is preoccupied by love, the dream of it, the need for it, in his characters' lives, but also the reality of it. To use an often-used analogy, if his films are coffee, under the sweetness of the cream and chocolate is an often bitter aftertaste.

Maximillian Oppenheimer was the son of a Jewish textile manager. Not following the family trade but going into the theatre instead, he adopted the pseudonym Ophüls to avoid any connection with his father. He began as an actor but found he preferred to be a stage director. At the time, he regarded the cinema as a minor medium, and it wasn't until the arrival of sound at the end of the 1920s that he saw his possibilities. He entered the German film industry as a dialogue director just as talking pictures arrived, and directed his first short film in 1931. The 1930s were his most prolific period: between 1931 and 1940, he directed two further shorts, both documentaries, and fifteen features, at first in Germany, then in France after he left the country following the rise of Nazism. He spent the rest of the decade in France, other than making one film in Italy and another in the Netherlands, before leaving the country after the German invasion, and arriving in America in 1941.

If Ophüls's reputation generally rests on his last seven films, that's because for the most part his earlier work is very hard to see, at least in English-speaking countries. Of those fifteen features, only two have had any British distribution since at least 1980. One was his 1933 film Liebelei, which had its first and so far only UK television showing as part of BBC2's Film Club on 19 March 1988, a showing I saw, followed by a VHS release in 1994. The other was Ophüls's Italian film from 1934, La signora di tutti, which had a cinema rerelease in 1982 and came out on DVD from Masters of Cinema in 2010. (Clydefro Jones reviews that now-out-of-print release here and I reviewed an earlier Italian DVD here.) Of the rest, I live in hope that English-friendly DVDs, if not Blu-rays, may eventually emerge, though I will note that at least three of them are currently available with English subtitles at a certain video-sharing site.

World War II caused a six-year hiatus in Ophüls's career. He was never happy in Hollywood, and his first work there was not an auspicious start: he was fired from and not credited on the 1946 Howard Hughes production Vendetta. His next film, the historical romance The Exile (1947), starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr as the deposed Charles Stuart, later Charles II, is the least-seen of the films Ophüls (there billed as Max Opüls) made in America. It's not been in British distribution since its cinema release in 1948, and does not appear to have been shown on television since 1978. Ophüls's made three more films in the USA - Letter from an Unknown Woman from 1948 and Caught and The Reckless Moment, both from 1949 – and four in France - La ronde (1950), a censorship milestone, the portmanteau film derived from three Guy de Maupassant stories, Le plaisir (1952), Madame de... (1953, known in America as The Earrings of Madame de...) and his final film, Lola Montès (1955), his only film in colour and the then new process of CinemaScope. These are the films on which his reputation currently rests, and which have been generally more readily available, both on tape and disc and, apart from Le plaisir, on British television, on the latter medium as long ago as 1958 in the case of Caught. Madame de... had showings on BBC2 in 1965 and 1966 and Channel 4 in 1996, and since then has turned up occasionally on Film Four.

Ophüls was working on Les amants de Montparnasse when he died of heart disease on 26 March 1957, aged fifty-four. His friend Jacques Becker completed the film, which is dedicated to Ophüls. His son, Marcel Ophüls, is himself a distinguished filmmaker in a very different field, the maker of epic documentaries picking at the theme of wartime guilt, most famously The Sorrow and the Pity.

Adapted from a novella by Louise de Vilmorin, Madame de… (we never hear the surname, hence the title) is a love story, if a tragic one. In Ophüls’s hands, it shows the transformative power of love – Louise matures as a result of her love for Donati, and becomes much less the frivolous trophy wife she was at the beginning of the film. It also shows its price – a price embodied in a pair of earrings. As the jewels pass from one owner to the next, Ophüls uncovers the darker emotions that lurk under the surface of this well-mannered and sophisticated Parisian high society. Danielle Darrieux gives a performance of quite some depth, backed up by strong work from Charles Boyer, a former matinee idol now in his fifties, as the rigid, honour-bound general, whose pride leads him to bring about the film’s tragic conclusion. Vittorio de Sica, as an actor rather than a director, could be a ham, especially in his older age, but he’s convincing here. Interestingly this isn’t a romance of youngsters but of middle-aged people, at least in years. Louise is meant to be younger than the two men in her life, but even so Danielle Darrieux was thirty-five when she made this film. Darrieux, still alive and having recently celebrated her hundredth birthday as I write this, was a regular Ophüls collaborator, with key roles in La ronde and Le plaisir as well as this one.

As ever, the elegant surface of an Ophüls film hides darker things underneath. But as ever, that elegance is supreme. Ophüls’s camera is frequently on the move, its often circular motion describing the themes of recurrence in the film as well as its characters' circumscribed existence. But this camera movement is always precisely right – there aren’t any shots that seem to be virtuoso for their own sake (such as the crane shot introducing the brothel in Le Plaisir). But Ophüls's use of sound, especially sound heard from offscreen, also has an impact. In the climactic duel, we see very little – what we hear (or don’t hear, to hint without spoiling it) tells us all we need to know.

The Disc

The BFI's release of Madame de... is dual-format. A check disc of the Blu-ray (encoded for Region B) was supplied for review.

Madame de... was shot in black and white in Academy Ratio (1.37:1), in the year that widescreen arrived. The BFI's transfer is derived from a HD restoration by Gaumont from the original nitrate negative, supplied to the BFI as ProRes files. The image is darker and less contrasty than some black and white 35mm-shot films I've seen on Blu-ray, possibly a little too much so when it comes to shadow detail (though I haven't seen this film in a cinema), but otherwise blacks and the all-important greys seem accurate, and grain is film-like. Screengrabs follow, the Second Sight DVD first, the BFI Blu-ray second.

The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. It's clear with the dialogue, music and sound effects well balanced. English subtitles are optional for this French-language film.

Between 2006 and 2009, Second Sight released Ophüls's last seven films on DVD, and I reviewed them all for this site – links are above. The BFI's Blu-ray and DVD carries one extra over from Second Sight's disc but not the other, and provide one new extra. You may want to keep your copy of the DVD for Tag Gallagher's visual essay on the film.

The new extra is a 2013 documentary directed by Dominique Maillet by Gaumont, Max Ophüls: Painter of Fatal Love, which does sound better in the original French: Max Ophüls, le peintre de l'amour fatal (60:44). It describes the making of the film, including interviews with many of the participants then still alive, though not including Danielle Darrieux. Her friend Dominique Delouche (a director and producer) does feature quite a bit, as does Ophüls's assistant on the film and future director Alain Jessua (more about him in a moment), historian Aldo Tassone, assistant director Jean Pieuchot, actor Serge Leconte, assistant Ulli Pickardt, director of the Bologna Cinematheque Gianluca Farinelli, Vittorio de Sica's children Manuel and Emi, and Piero Tosi, a costume designer and friend of de Sica. Also in the documentary are extracts from the film and archive footage of Ophüls and Darrieux.

The other extra on the disc is “Working with Max Ophüls” (25:29). Alain Jessua, a novelist and film director, began his career as an assistant director, first for Jacques Becker on Casque d’Or then for Ophüls on Madame de… and Lola Montès. Among Jessua's tasks were to direct background extras and even to clear up droppings when horses came on to the set. Jessua's own work is very different from Ophüls's but he clearly has considerable affection for a man he regards as both a friend and a mentor.

The BFI's thirty-two-page booklet begins with an essay by Laura Mulvey. It's reprinted from Film Quarterly which explains why it's named after the film's US title, although Mulvey is quick to point out that she has always known it by its original French title, which was the one used in the UK. Mulvey ably elucidates the themes and style of the film, which in many ways feels to her like an Ophüls compendium. Maybe Ophüls sensed that he had not long to live. This is followed by “'Only Superficially Superficial': The Tragedy of Sophistication in Madame de..., an appreciation of the film by Adrian Danks and originally published in 2003 on the Senses of Cinema website. The remaining pieces are all from the Sight and Sound archive. First is Lindsay Anderson's actually rather critical review from Spring 1954: he compares the film and Le plaisir unfavourably to The Reckless Moment and Letter to an Unknown Woman, which I doubt would be the common opinion nowadays. Also from Sight and Sound, this time from 1950, is an interview with Ophüls, This catches the director having just returned to France (he'd been a French citizen since 1938) after a Hollywood production there had fallen through, and having just shot La ronde, and inevitably the possibility of censorship, in the USA and UK particularly, comes up. Finally, there are tributes to Ophüls, published just after his death in the Summer 1957 issue of Sight and Sound, from James Mason (who worked with him on Caught and The Reckless Moment and here contributes a much-quoted ode to Ophüls's trademark moving camera), Ophüls's regular cinematographer Christian Matras, his frequent screenwriter Jacques Natanson, and finally Peter Ustinov, who played the ringmaster in Lola Montès. Ustinov contributes his own, much-quoted description of Ophüls: “a watchmaker intent on making the smallest watch in the world, and then, with a sudden flash of perversity, putting it up on a cathedral”. The booklet concludes with full film credits and notes on the transfer but, unusually for the BFI, nothing on the disc extras.

(Thanks to Sheldon Hall for information on the UK television screenings of Ophüls's films.)

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